MINNEAPOLIS -- Christmas is best celebrated with a goose in the oven, and Wendell Diller and I like them as fresh as possible. Any goose in the freezer is a good goose. But one that has been fattened by the long autumn and roasted to moist perfection on a cold December evening steadies the nerves as few holiday meals can.
Friday morning, I was in the barn early, long before dawn, leaning into the chores like a hired hand. The thermometer registered 9 degrees below zero, and the old gelding nickered ruefully when I scooped grain from a bucket. The dogs were next; I walked and fed them. Then I pulled a pair of waders from the garage, loaded a heavy duffel into the truck and drove off, tires squeaking against the snow.
Wendell drives a '78 Volare wagon, heavy on the Bondo, with a new blue paint job courtesy a couple dozen spray cans from Wal-Mart. The rig doesn't look like much and its slant-6 is staring hard at 375,000 miles. But Wendell is an engineer and inventor and when I arrived, the old buggy, as usual, was purring like a kitten in the hand.
"Good morning," I said.
"It's cold," Wendell said.
"Yes, it is," I said.
At the shoreline of the frozen backwater we would hunt we unloaded an aluminum canoe, a dozen decoys and one shotgun, its barrel 7 feet long. This last is one of Wendell's inventions, and the result is a nearly silent discharge -- the better on a day like Friday not to overly disturb geese with loud reports.
"You can hunt today," Wendell said, explaining the lone scattergun. "I'll shoot pictures."
Wendell has watched me take photos for so long on these hunts that he has become a shutterbug himself. A few years ago on the Internet he found himself a lovely wife, Galina, who at the time was living in Siberia. You can't make this stuff up, and after a long-distance romance, Galina is now a Minnesotan.
"Galina," Wendell said, "wants me to take lots of pictures."
"Images," I said. "Not pictures."
"Right," Wendell said. "You shoot the birds.
"I'll shoot pictures."
We loaded the decoys and gun into the canoe and lifted it onto a homemade sled. What we were about to do isn't dangerous except when the ice gives way. That's when the waders come in handy. And life jackets. Also, the canoe itself has an inner-tube outrigger attached to one side to keep it from tipping in the event we break through and have to pull ourselves aboard.
The equipment is specialized and time-tested, absent which (friendly suggestion to follow) no one should attempt to replicate our little adventure.
The ice was solid. But we did occasionally encounter slush, which made the pulling difficult and the going slow. We make this trip every December, usually multiple times, and no two outings are alike. Sometimes we walk a mile or more on good ice before we find open water. Other times, we break through a few hundred yards from shore, climb into the canoe and paddle.
On Friday we walked a long way to the edge of a pool of steaming water not much larger than a handball court. On the water were a gaggle of Canada geese and a bevy of trumpeter swans. On days this cold, these birds often fly late, well after sunrise, if they fly at all. Now, as we approached, they arose in unison, honking and trumpeting, gaining altitude slowly as they struggled to put distance between themselves and Wendell and me.
"They'll be back," Wendell said.
I set out decoys at the edge of the open water while Wendell reached for his camera. Galena talks frequently over the Internet to her relatives in Russia and also sends photos. A few snapshots from this little trip, I figured, and even motherland skeptics should be convinced Americans won't be easily denied when the subject is protein for the pot.
In a short while, a lone goose overflew us and I lobbed a single volley toward it with the long gun. These were special sub-sonic loads we were shooting, and I led the goose too far. That was OK. If history repeated itself, soon we would be covered up in birds as they circled to land again in the icy water.
The first goose to return was so much fun to photograph I forgot to shoot it. It landed not in the pond but on the ice, skidding about 5 yards before somersaulting to a stop.
Then it waddled alongside one of our decoys and lay down.
"I'm not going to shoot that goose," I said.
"The element of fair chase does seem absent, doesn't it?" Wendell said.
For a couple of hours our friend the goofy honker maintained its position.
In the end we shooed it away.
The morning seemed to grow no warmer as the sun angled higher in the sky. A slight wind twisted across the ice, and as it did we talked about all the old subjects, including our friend, Don (Duckman) Helmeke.
When Don was alive, sometimes he, Wendell and I would hunt geese in the morning, after which Don and Wendell, roommates at the time, would cruise the Internet for Russian women, comparing notes about who might make a good mate.
"Rest in peace, Don," I said.
Except for a few swans, no geese returned.
By noon we loaded up the canoe and again pulled it atop the ice, toward shore.