When Tim Beier called me at the end of November to invite me along on a Wednesday, December 17, goose hunt over in the Rochester area, I stalled him with a little small talk while quickly checking weather.com on my computer. That day’s forecast promised a high in the upper twenties with sunshine. I thought about it for a second and then committed. Never trust weather predictions that promise good weather more than a week away, particularly if they could be wrong and instead bad weather will torture you in a situation you can’t escape. The actual high Tuesday the 16th was not much above zero, but it was promised that on Wednesday the temperature would creep into the teens, barely.
I called Butch, Tim’s dad, who is roughly (not only in years but physical condition) my age, and put it to him: “Will we survive this expediton, or perhaps die?” He answered, without much confidence, “Timmy says they have heaters in the goose pits.”
I did not sleep well Tuesday night, which was dark, cold, and long, despite the wakeup call of 6:15 am, an hour meant for peaceful slumber and hateful to all who must be up and about, except zealots. It is not for nothing that executions take place at dawn. The car thermometer read 5 degrees as I drove out to the East End rendezvous. It would be a group of the two old guys, and Timmy Beier and friends, one of whom was Andy Loos, who has a TV show, HuntFish TV, that chronicles his various outdoor adventures. (You can view it at 5:30 Saturdays and Sundays.) It was he who had the connection with our guides. We drove up Hwy. 43 to Wilson and turned west onto I-90 towards Rochester, a fine, powdery snow blowing across the highway like sand in a desert. I snuck glances at the car thermometer and watched it drop, down and down, til it read 5, with a little dash I didn’t remember seeing before — it was a minus sign.
Our guides, Run-N-Gun Outfitters, met us at a convenience store. (Check the phone book or their website.) We followed them out to a farm southwest of Rochester, parked, and got out into the frigid wind. I had dressed carefully, with layer upon layer of silk, wool, and windproof shell, plus high tech gloves and boots guaranteed to -45 degrees. Hah! We drove out to a high spot in a harvested cornfield, with at least 100 goose decoys spread over an area about one-quarter of a city block. Nothing else. I got out, and figured that I would last, at most, about five more minutes. Did they imagine I would lie on the ground under a white sheet? Were they mad...criminally insane?
Fortunately, the Run-N-Gun guys quickly slid back the covers on five two-man goose pits dug into the cornfield, side-by-side in a 20-yard row. Each had two hatches about 3’X4’ through which we climbed down into a wooden box with the blessed propane heater. Trying to light it, Butch fumbled match after match, which put me in mind of the unfortunate hero of the Jack London story, who froze to death in the Klondike cold when his fingers quit working before he could get his fire lit. But Butch finally figured out the heater and we were surviving, for now. I had initially viewed these subground chambers and their tight little entry hatches with a shock of claustrophobia, but I was freezing so rapidly that I soon would have dived into any coffin that promised a little warmth.
Now we were sitting underground on buckets in a plywood spider hole not quite deep enough to sit up straight. At least it warmed up quickly. We poked our heads above ground to receive instruction from our leader. He addressed us, like WWI doughboys in the trenches: “Each of you has a white fabric lid just big enough to hide your hatch. When geese are spotted, crouch down, hide your port with the lid in one hand and your shotgun in the other. When the buzzer goes off, flip your lid clear, pop up with the gun, and commence shooting geese. You may fire overhead, or in front or back of the line. DO NOT SHOOT DOWN THE LINE!” Nope, I thought, looking left and right at my neighbors, each about a yard away – he’s right about that! We had all signed waivers at the Kwik Trip stating in several ways that we were aware that shotguns are dangerous, and that if someone were to be shot by one it would be a bad, bad thing, and we hereby gave up our rights to sue anyone over it.
We got back underground and waited. We poked our heads out and waited. And then we waited some more. “We gotta wait ‘em out,” someone said. Finally, closer to 1 p.m. than noon, wavering skeins of geese could be seen faraway in the direction of Rochester, easily mistaken for floaters in your vision. Someone shouted, “Here comes a single,” and we all ducked down, white lids at the ready, a cacophony of goose calls filling the air – HER-ONK, HER-ONK, HER-ONK-ONK-ONK, suddenly a buzzing noise like you’d hear on a TV game show, and then a crashing volley of shotguns. I got my head up in time to see the goose plummet to the earth about a block away with a great thump. I asked Butch if he had gotten a shot off. “Nope,” he said. “I forgot about the buzzer.”
Now the geese were flying and the action was pretty fast. Someone would spot birds coming in, we would crouch in our holes until the buzzer sounded –(pretty high tech) – and then pop up to see the great birds gliding towards the decoys, in formation like heavy WWII bombers, now laboring frantically to gain altitude, one or two faltering at the sound of the guns and then staggering down out of the air. Some time ago the Silver Lake flock of Canada Geese were discovered to be the giant strain that were thought to have disappeared. This band now numbers some 30,000, and they are big birds, as big as turkeys easily, weighing close to 20 pounds.
After sitting around with nothing happening for about four hours that morning, Butch and I, in order to get back to Winona on time, had to wait ten or fifteen minutes for an all clear before we could leave the pits to walk the quarter mile back to the cars. It was bitter cold again, the sun casting long shadows more than light, the snow more blue than white. I had to get to our office Christmas party at about 4:00. Wait’ll I tell ‘em about this, I thought.