This past Sunday, September 24, 2017, my daughter turned 4 months old and on that very same morning, I arguably risked my life to retrieve a downed duck.
The shot, known to me even at the time and especially in retrospect, was ill-advised. The duck had flushed from the marsh and no longer flew within a stick’s length from the bank. (We had no dog with us, no waders on hand.)
But there it was: a sizeable waterfowl silhouette in the periphery of my shotgun bead—within range and flying directly away.
In those few split seconds it was obvious to me: going home with two bagged ducks to feed my family is better than returning with just one.
So I pulled the trigger, watched it drop like a bag of bricks atop a bog.
“Well,” said my buddy Dave Orrick to my right, “You’re getting wet, mother fucker.”
We assessed our options, scoured the shore of a nearby pothole where a canoe has sat the past two hunting seasons. It, of course, wasn’t there this year.
On the walk back to the bog, I listened to all of Orrick’s multisyllabic reasons why I wouldn’t sink in the marsh and die.
Eutrophication was one of them.
“Pine bogs are tannic,” he said, “as in tannic acid. This bog is different, mostly poplars, so less give at the bottom.”
Regardless, I picked up a tall, heavy tree limb to test the bottom, one step ahead of my own while crossing.
I stripped down to my boxers and leaned on the tall stick as I waded into the marsh. My lead foot sank several inches into mud bottom the closer I got to the bog.
“At the very least,” Orrick shouted after me, “this will make for a good story.”
I was already thinking the same thing, because that is our business:
Writing about the outdoors, covering and creating stories no matter how unpredictable or wild they may become.
My daughter, Muireann Nell (a name most already and will forever mispronounce), was born with a burst air sac in her lung, a respiratory distress syndrome called pneumothorax. She also had swallowed a good deal of meconium (baby stool during labor) and was having trouble breathing.
She spent her first four nights in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children’s Memorial in Minneapolis. I stayed with her that first night, as my wife was recovering from minor complications from childbirth.
I sat beside her basinet encased in plastic, vigilantly watching her vitals on the monitor. Nurses told me I was “very well composed and calm,” given the situation, and “that is important.” I knew very little about this creature with dilated pupils and tubes attached to its face. Everything, that first night, was purely objective in my mind.
But having gotten to know my daughter these past four months, after spending every day with her, listening to her string together her first giggles atop my chest while we pretend to perform baby pushups, I know I would be inconsolable should I ever have to undergo that experience again.
There are evenings, as my wife nurses our daughter to sleep, when I think to myself: “I would give anything to lock us all in a bomb shelter, forget about the outside world, keep us this safe and happy for the rest of our lives.”
I, of course, know that is, and will never be, possible.
My wife and I anticipate a move to Kansas in the near future. My wife has read about how certain schools are reducing lunchtime for students, punishing students for talking by taking away their food.
My initial reaction: “So we will home-school her.”
That same Dave Orrick, outdoors editor at the Pioneer Press, recently published a story by Sam Cook about a father still coping 40 years after shooting and killing his 14-year-old on a grouse opener. The story, which is very well-written, is both visceral and heartbreaking.
After reading it, as a lump formed in my throat, I thought to myself: “Nope. My daughter is never going to hunt.”
When I first stuck that tree limb into the bog’s edge, it collapsed upon itself like a plastic bag heading down the drain under running water.
“No one will blame if you turn back,” Orrick yelled to me. “No one can say you didn’t make an ethical attempt to retrieve your game.”
But still: one bird versus two? And I cannot stand the idea of killing an animal, then leaving its harvest to the chance of scavengers.
I tested another edge, more secure, so I crawled atop to disperse my weight. I carried the stick in the crooks of my elbows like a soldier holding his rifle, performing a belly crawl. I said a couple prayers to all pertinent parties of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and even Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost items.
I realized, however, if I were ever going to find the duck, I would need to stand to gain vantage. Several feet from the bog’s edge, the fescue and forbs seemed sturdier, so I stood, feet double-shoulder-length apart and tree limb balanced parallel to the bog, similar to how ice anglers carry their spud when walking across thin ice.
If I were going to drop in, I had hoped the edges of the tree limb would catch and I could pull myself up.
But none of that ever happened. I located the duck after a few minutes and retraced my steps. I hurled the duck to shore, and finished crossing the marsh. Upon reaching the bank, I immediately sifted through my pack for a bottle of water. I was completely parched—a sign of fear, I suspect.
I have climbed narrow cliff ledges, against my better judgment, to access another part of a river during steelhead season in Washington. I have waded through fierce current to reach the other side, just to fish the steelhead green waters along that shoreline. I have camped overnight within just a few miles of grizzlies, a sidearm beside my sleeping bag.
During these moments, I will admit there was a tinge of fear, though only for myself. Yes, I was either probably engaged or married, but always figured, “She’s good looking. She’ll find someone new—no problem.”
Having a daughter has created a new sense of caution within my psyche. I spend my days delivering bottles every couple hours, changing diapers, singing silly songs. I sometimes question, “Is this my intended role?” I, admittedly, am pretty good at it.
My wife, bless her soul, works full-time, often six days a week. Her time with our child is limited but valuable nonetheless. As she often says, “This baby girl is the best of both of us.” I couldn’t agree more.
I have never thought I could love an innocent creature as much as I do this baby girl. She makes me want to never risk anything, ever again.
We have all read the famous Jack London passage: “I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.”
I have returned to this maxim often lately as a father. I wrote something similar for my thesis at Eastern Washington, as I imagined what my grandfather, a WWII navy war hero after whom I am named, might say to me:
“I never wanted to be found dead anywhere but outside, under the sun, wanted to be lying face up where my pupils could contract staring at that red-rimmed haze. To watch that annular blur fade like some cigarette burn on a film reel.”
I suppose that is how I viewed my own existence back then, at the age of 27.
As Jack London said: “The function of man is to live, not to exist.”
This Monday I leave for the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, my first trip to the region. Our group plans to spend fours days canoeing, portaging, fishing, hunting and camping. All risks involved, as far as the wild is concerned, are minimal. But still I know I am going to miss my daughter, and part of me will wish I could just stay home every day with her, read books and talk about all the ways an Irish family can prepare potatoes for dinner.
But my sundry yarns of our household cat would grow stale, my meanderings on the culinary arts repetitive. As time progressed, I imagine I would exhaust my collection of stories and invaluable life lessons—for as smart we expect her to be, she will learn and retain them quickly—and having chosen to experience very little outside the home for sake of safety and security, I will have no well from which to draw.
So I set forth, back into the wild, awaiting the day when I’ll hold her hand as she walks beside me.