Cordova Chronicles: A sport that defies explanation

By the early ’60s, our duck hunting craft had advanced to a metal Quachita with 18 hp Johnson, but Dad was still finding great joy in river running. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times
By the early ’60s, our duck hunting craft had advanced to a metal Quachita with 18 hp Johnson, but Dad was still finding great joy in river running. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

This fall marks year 65 in my pursuit of wily waterfowl.

Duck hunting is one of those sports that defies explanation. Befuddlement is most likely its greatest charm. 

Dad taught my brother Bobby and I that lesson on our first hunt down Alaganik in 1954. 

After overnighting in the back of an old canvas-covered stave-sided Ford truck parked along the bank of that slough near the McKinley Lake trailhead, at early dawn he fixed us a breakfast of scorched hot chocolate and cold breakfast rolls.

With our excited brown and white cocker spaniel Candy racing about, we piled into a 12-foot cedar lifeboat powered by a 10-horsepower Johnson outboard. Dad, the Master Scrounger, had found the craft at the dump. It was considerably longer when he discovered it, discarded by the Coast Guard after one end had been smashed in.

Dad had cut off the damaged section, built a little transom, and “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s down the river we go.”

Back before the 1964 earthquake uplift, Alaganik was a major waterway; and in fact, old railroad photos show a stern wheeler tied to a dock on its banks just upriver from where we launched.

Candy stood on the bow of the boat, nose pointed in the air, ears flapping in the crisp breeze, with an expanding “V” forming in the grey water behind us as we cruised down the river in one of those mornings that is never forgotten.

In those days, the Delta was a vast golden field of grass. There was no brush or trees, as big tides flowed over the cutbacks and prevented the growth of such vegetation. 

We stopped near the mouth of Alaganik and set up a pair of blinds on a string of shallow ponds, using alder we had cut near the road prior to launching. Bobby, three years older and already a veteran, hunted out of one blind.  Dad and I sat in the other. 

For decoys, we used small self-inflating rubber duckies called Deeks.

A small metal ring in the bottom held them floating in place after being plopped in the water.

The sun rose over mountains far to the east and sparkled on the ponds. It was a cloudless day, and few birds were about. Bobby did get one duck with his single-shot 16 gage. Dad puffed on his pipe and mentored me in my first exposure to wing shooting as I fired a few volleys with a single shot 4-10. The long narrow shells didn’t contain many more pellets than a Daisy BB gun that I had been blazing away with for years, and needless to say, no ducks came tumbling out of the sky.

Lunch time rolled around, and we dined on Dad’s specialty, sardine sandwiches, with chips, candy bars and soda pop as sides. Properly nourished, we all dozed off, until Dad noticed that it was becoming late in the day, and time to head back.

Alas, we walked over to the riverbank and found that Alaganik had become a considerably smaller slough. It was our first introduction to a very important document called a Tide Book.

Not a problem. The boat was light; we pulled it across the mud to the water’s edge and headed upriver. 

By the time we reached the location of what is today’s Alaganik Landing, it was becoming dark, and Dad was discovering several submerged logs and stumps that hadn’t been there on the way down river. Upon impact, the shaft of the outboard would fly up, prop spinning in the air and engine protesting loudly.

Not a problem. Dad wisely carried as many shear pins as shot gun shells. Bobby held a spotlight as Dad changed them, while I shivered in the bow with Candy.

Finally, we reached the road, loaded the boat in the back of the truck, and headed to town. By now it was pitch black. I remember dim headlights shining out in front of us before falling asleep with Candy on my lap and the truck’s heater blazing away.

Of course, Mom was quite upset by the time we pulled up to the house. We lined up like troops waiting for a chewing out. Her opening gambit was “Just what have to you done to these kids, Don Shellhorn?”

When she called Dad by that name, we had come to learn that he, rather than Candy, was truly in the doghouse. It was quite a thrill to be party to the event.

We were sent up to our bedroom, and slept contentedly, known we had just become members of a unique fraternity — called duck hunters.

It was a glorious day of befuddlement.

And I have been hunting ducks ever since.