Sep 10, 2014

The Best Day Ever

By: Ron Jungwirth

I was startled awake in the middle of the early December night because the wind was howling through the trees outside our bedroom window.  Excited thoughts galloped through my mind as I imagined the coming day of hunting along the White River.  I’d had this feeling before but that was long ago when I was a little boy waiting for Christmas morning when dreams of the Tudor electric vibrating football game were about to become reality under the Christmas tree.  But now, looking out the window, I was wondering if my dream of a special day was going to be dashed by the howling wind and ice pellets crackling against the side of the house.  My faithful hunting companion, Lucy, a golden retriever, came to my side of the bed to check to see if it was time to go.  I told her, “It’s not time yet Lucy, go back to bed.”  I continued to gaze out the window into the night, wondering if it would be possible to duck hunt in an ice storm with gale force winds.

Just the week before, I had my first taste of what it was like to float the White River while duck hunting from a skiff.  There are no words to describe the beauty of floating down a meandering, secluded, central Wisconsin stream.   I probably had no business doing it given how inexperienced I was, having only two years of duck hunting under my belt.  Just two years earlier, I never had even picked up a shot gun in my life and I was in my 40’s! 

Hunting was never a part of my life growing up because my dad wasn’t a hunter; instead he was an amazing mechanic.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t smart enough to pick that up from him as I was growing up.  I spent my fall days running around the back yard in my #44 Donny Anderson Green Bay Packer uniform.  All that changed in 1978 when I met this girl that I knew I was going to marry after only a few days of knowing her.  Little did I know that would lead to changes in my life that can only be described similar to being drafted by the Green Bay Packers and playing home games at Lambeau Field. 

To say that my father-in-law is a duck hunter doesn’t do him justice.  Ron Koch’s depth of knowledge and skill in the sport go beyond just shooting ducks.  Every time I go hunting with him it’s like getting the chance to play football on a Vince Lombardi-coached team.  With every story he tells there is a plethora of advice. Having the chance to observe him at his craft first-hand has implanted in me a passion for duck hunting and more importantly, an understanding of how to be a strong person and stand up for what I believe in.  As the howl of the night wind grew louder through the trees, I had a feeling the coming day was going to be another step in that learning process.

The plan was for my father-in-law to drop me, Lucy, and my skiff off upriver.  Then he would drive to a spot downriver to hunt and wait for us to float down to him.  As we drove to the place where I was going to put in my skiff I was so nervous that my toes where cramping inside my boots because I had them tightly curled up for the whole ride.  I could sense the apprehension in my father-in-law as well.  I was sure he was thinking, “What am I doing letting this greenhorn do this?”  As we got closer to our destination I finally spoke up and asked, “Have you ever done anything this crazy before?”  It was kind of a stupid question because he had hunted for five decades and had hunted through countless brutal weather conditions over the years.  He calmly answered, “Only a few times.”

Even though it is a little stream, the White River’s current is very swift.  Numerous downed trees stuck out from the banks, allowing only a few feet to maneuver my skiff around.  Some were stretched completely across the river so I had to play a game of limbo to pass under them.  In the worst cases, I had to portage around them.  The wind was peaking around 30 mph and the temperature had dropped into the lower 20s.  My fingers had been frozen before I even stepped into my skiff.  Lucy’s teeth were chattering so much it sounded like she was purring like a kitten.  The rapids kept the water from freezing but as I swung my paddle over the bow of my skiff, every drop of water that fell from it froze immediately, covering the bow in a sheet of glare ice. 

Growing up I was very athletic.  Some people even called me “rubber band man” because of my abilities in acrobatics and gymnastics.  It would take all of those skills to survive this day.  As the swift current carried my skiff into the most perilous parts of the river, I stabbed my paddle on either side of the skiff trying to keep it pointing in the right direction while my eyes stayed glued downstream to scan for ducks and to plan my angle of attack for the next bend in the river.  Considering that even in the best conditions, from the point you spot a flock of ducks ahead of your skiff you probably have one second to set your paddle down, pick up your shotgun, switch off the safety, point the gun, and pull the trigger, my chances of bagging any ducks this day were about as good as the Bears chances of beating the Packers.  At least the excitement of expecting a flock of mallards around the next bend kept my mind off the dangerous environment I was in.

I scanned the terrain ahead, planning where I needed to position my skiff to jump an unsuspecting flock of mallards.  I tried to stay on the inside shore of each bend in the river to conceal myself from any ducks that might be feeding just around the corner.  On one bend I was in perfect position as I slowly inched my skiff around the corner, nerves ready to snap into action.  Just then a pair of greenheads jumped on the opposite side of the river from a clump of fallen trees.  Even if I had gotten my gun up in time, they were too far to the side to take a shot.  Of course I did anyway.  I always remember my father-in-law saying, “You won’t get many ducks if you don’t shoot at them.”

I found a little inlet around the next bend and decided to take a break and have a cup of coffee.  It gave me a chance to settle down and prepare for the rest of the adventure.  As I was sipping my coffee and surveying the spectacular winter scenery in front of me I said a short prayer thanking God for the opportunity to be out in this paradise.  Now it was time to continue my hunt and see what I could find downstream.  I took nine shots on the two mile float but didn’t get any ducks.  I did manage to navigate all the downed trees and the fast moving twists and turns in the swift flowing river without dumping myself, Lucy, and all my gear to the bottom of the river.  Most hunters would say that to come home without any ducks was a failed mission but to me it was a great adventure and a memory that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.  As I reached the end of the float trip, my father-in-law was waiting to pick me up along a road that crossed the river.  I knew before he asked that his question was going to be, “How many?”  When I said I didn’t get any he seemed disappointed.  Little did he know how I felt!  It was the best day of my life!

I may have been a little late in life when my big adventures began, but I am fortunate to be sharing them now with my father-in-law.  A life worth living will always have some risks.  My father-in-law makes sure that I know the risks and how to deal with them.  If you’re a dad, please ask yourself, “What memories am I creating for my kids?”  It’s fine to go to the park or play video games with your kids, but hopefully you are also providing real adventure in their lives.  Sure, adventures like these require some hard work, real effort, and yes, real risk.  Make the effort to give your children great memories that they will cherish for the rest of their lives.