Cordova Chronicles: The case of a mysterious sound

On opening day of the 2019 duck season, several widgeon decoys try to work their magic in front of my blind on the Copper River Delta. Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

This is a tale worthy of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.  Set in small Alaska town, it involves an unlikely cast of characters: a soft-spoken USFS enforcement officer; a highly successful retired fisherman; a colorful gas station attendant; a long-gone jack-of-all trades contractor; an unidentified perpetrator; and of course, my duck hunting partner of over 60 years, Randy Bruce.

It began with a phone call from the latter stating “Shellhorn, you are not going to believe this one.”  Which of course meant it was going to be a doozie, as I have already written a 400-page book about most of our more entertaining endeavors.

Randy and his wife Jackie had spent a week down at their duck cabin near the mouth of Eyak River, and decided it was time to come to town for a shower and re-supply.

Their place is one of the most-well maintained on the Delta, where small wooden structures on the ever changing marshlands can vanish in the expanding growth of brush, while being battered year-round by weather that typically includes intense wind, rain and snow.

While firing up the furnace for hot water to rinse off the accumulation of a week’s grime, both noticed some strange sounds.  “It sounded like something I had never heard before,” said Randy, who has heard a lot of unusual sounds in a small home that Fred Pettingill brought from my parents in the late ‘50s and then proceeded to double in size for to his ever-growing family.

Fred, who started out in the logging trade upon arriving from Idaho, got things done, often a manner leaving future workers scratching their heads.  Randy recalled contractor Mike Balint, while trying to repair the leaky garage roof, saying “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.”

The house, which sits directly across from Mt. Eccles Elementary, includes a large fireplace Fred had built.  Randy discovered, while trying to heat the home by burning wood during the era of high oil prices, that more energy was going up the stack than about the house.

Consequently, he had installed a more energy-efficient earth stove insert, which gradually fell into disuse over the years.

After considerable sleuthing, the pair decided the strange noises seemed to be coming from behind the insert. 

Hmmm.  Perhaps it was time to contact the authorities.

In mid-July 2020, a mysterious intruder entered Randy and Jackie Bruce’s home on 2nd and Adams via an unusual access point. Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

Andy Morse, a pleasant USFS enforcement officer, happened to be passing by, so Randy asked him what it might be.  Speculation ran the gamut from a crow or some such bird to perhaps a squirrel, depending on one’s analysis of the unusual sounds. 

The only course of action seemed to be accessing the source.

Regardless of potential outcomes, Morse assured him that under such circumstances, most critters seemed to be rather docile when rescued.  The need for him to stand by to disarm a potential assailant seemed unlikely.

Retired seine boat captain Gary Raymond is a regular at Randy’s for coffee, so the pair strategized a plan of attack over several cups of Seattle’s Best.  This involved 2X12’s, blocking, and a significant number of tools, with Jackie, who would have to help clean up the mess, wisely withholding comment.

After removing the heavy earth stove, the noise behind the insert liner became louder.  When it was removed, there sat a wide-eyed widgeon.

Both Gary and Randy were speechless.

News travels fast in Cordova, especially within a one-block radius.

Stella Muma, a Shoreside gas station attendant who can see the Bruce home from her work site on nearby Main Street, and keeps an eye on their house when they are out of town, was surprised, expressing disbelief with language that would make even a mallard blush.

The duck itself appeared equally befuddled, uttering nary a sound.   Randy gently picked it up and carried it out to his yard beside the garage, which faces the grade school.

“It sat there for a bit like it wasn’t sure where it was, but then shook its feathers and took off.  Last I saw it was gaining altitude over the playground, heading north.”

Randy wasn’t sure if he heard a quack of thanks or not.

As in all crimes, motive was a key part of post-investigation analysis.

How and why the duck entered Bruce’s fireplace chimney remains a mystery.  Speculation centered on a frantic escape from an eagle or hawk.  Or perhaps it was simply exhausted by a long flight north, was seeking shelter during a stiff south-easter, and experienced a strong down-draft not unlike that which Alaska Airlines passengers enjoy on bumpy final approaches to Mudhole Smith Airport.

I have a different theory.  Randy and Jackie spend the winter months down south, just like many waterfowl.  They have a modest place beside a golf course in 1000 Palms, California, and Randy makes feeding ducks as well as songbirds along the fairways part of his morning routine.

Indeed, some days when I call from Cordova to check in, I can barely hear him for all the chirping and quacking. More than once he has mentioned a trip to the feed store will be on his agenda after hanging up. Purchasing in bulk has seemed to cut operating costs.

Perhaps this particular bird, while migrating by overhead, recognized Randy, and dropped by for brunch. 

After all, we both know, after a lifetime study of waterfowl behavior, that widgeon rank right above wily spoonbills on the Duck Intelligence Scale.

Needless to say, Randy and Jackie were both delighted at the outcome.  “Can you imagine if we hadn’t come home in time to rescue it?”

Indeed, smells rather than sounds might have been the first clue to the intrusion. 

Randy did have one regret.  As part of a long-range study, every summer biologists place bright red neck bands on Dusky geese that migrate to this area.  Typically, local hunters go out of their way not to bag these particular birds.

Randy wished he had asked them to find a small band for this duck.   Maybe it would have received a free pass south and have strutted up to his deck by the golf course in 1000 Palms come November.

And if you don’t believe this whole story, ask me about the incredible aerobatic display I recently witnessed involving a swallow chasing a hummingbird near our place on Odiak Slough. 

To put it politely, no kidding!