Forged by Fire and Ice

A recent snap of my faithful canoe, the one in which we floated some 44 years ago. -M. Robbins Church


Fueled by a surplus of testosterone and a deficit of logic, a situation common to young male duck hunters, we headed out.


By M. Robbins Church


"Oh, what now? What's next?" I asked myself as I struggled late that December afternoon to line the canoe with Pete, our shotguns, and our single bird through the ice-cold rapids. The river was nearing the top of my waders, and my next steps were uncertain. It had been an eventful, frigid canoe hunt — and it wasn't done yet.


Early that morning, I had phoned Pete. "Hey, look, I'm thinking it is too cold to float. The guy on the radio says it is 18 degrees out there! Sorry, just seems too cold, is all." Then, ten minutes later, I called again, "What the heck? Let’s try it." Given the non-existence of cell phones, email, and texting in that age years ago, it is a wonder I caught him. Once out the door, he would have been gone. The topic in question was a duck hunting trip on the James River in Virginia, near where we went to university. 


Pete and I shared an academic department — he finishing his bachelor's, and I, my doctorate. We had met playing intramural hoops and soon discovered we both were ardent fishers of smallmouth (he on the N. Fork of the Shenandoah, I on the James). And we both were duck hunters. As frugal students, our duck hunting options were one — jump shooting on rivers.


It was the week after Thanksgiving, and just a couple of days earlier, before temperatures had become arctic, I had argued, "This cold snap is perfect. The farm ponds are freezing, and the birds will head to the rivers. I have a canoe; let's try a float. The James should be loaded with ducks." Such was my theory.


Our initial chats on outings were like "speed dating for hunters/fishers." Over the last forty years, scores of subsequent adventures together for various species that fly or swim have followed, but this was the first.


Fueled by a surplus of testosterone and a deficit of logic, a situation common to young male duck hunters, we headed out. We were behind schedule but eager, our throttles stuck on wide open. My wife, dubious from the outset, provided the shuttle. After stashing Pete's car at our takeout, we headed upstream. My wife would drive our car home, and I would ride back with Pete — an arrangement later to prove crucial.


We put in at Howardsville, just below the confluence with the Rockfish River. There was a broad gravel bar, too shallow for us to load from shore, and we had to walk my secondhand canoe out through the icy riffle. We both were in chest-high waders. Pete wore latex stockingfoots, and over them, his old high school basketball shoes — blue Chuck Taylors of the Woodstock Central High Falcons, enhanced with indoor/outdoor carpeting glued to the bottom for traction. I wore old insulated bootfoot Hodgman's. A mishmash of cold-weather clothing made up the rest of our outfits.



Skim ice cracked and crunched beneath our feet as we made our way out to water deep enough for the canoe to float free. I held the boat at the stern while Pete sloshed into the bow, water dripping from his now-soaked canvas Chucks. Then I climbed in, ready to play guide — on a stretch of river I had never floated.


It was a classic, crystalline December day in Virginia's Piedmont, only colder. Bright blue sky above, tendrils of mist ghosting from the river into the still air — the sort of winter day we seldom see where I live now in Oregon. Like old friends, such days seem gone from me, still out there somewhere but rarely seen.


Once we both were on board, Pete loaded his shotgun. He would hunt from the bow, and I would paddle with the plan to switch positions between ducks. I stashed my unloaded gun nearby in the stern. I had not brought Jeep, my wife's Golden. Retrievers are a poor mix in canoe duck hunting — especially in frigid waters and weather. If you capsize, often the only survivor is the dog.


Here, the James was gentle. No rapids to worry us, no small jabs of adrenaline to keep us on edge. It was the best of paddling, with time to enjoy the country — the river fringed with hardwoods, scattered patches of pine, the occasional pasture.


In the silken current of the river, the canoe responded with the barest whisper to the effortless dip and stroke of the paddle. As we slipped downstream, the road along the James curved away, and we entered a secluded riverscape. We were now committed to this journey; there was no way out but through.


We drifted, searching for ducks, then relaxing as the river and the day carried us. A curious otter surfaced nearby, then glided away, his fluid movements mocking our efforts at stealth. We were brash intruders, stalking, conspiring; he was at home and at peace, enjoying a quiet day on the river he considered his own.


A few miles downstream, Pete squirmed. "Uh oh," I thought, "what have I gotten myself into? What's his problem?" Pete was hunched over, fussing with his feet as I paddled behind him. He pivoted on his bow seat, holding something in his hand. "Hey, look at this," he said, then tossed a sneaker back mid-canoe. It crash-landed like a giant bronzed baby shoe — a shiny blue block of ice, frozen solid, with stiffened cotton laces splaying skyward at impossible angles. It glittered in the bright, cold sun, a monument to stark reality. Now I understood. Although the image was hilarious, the situation was serious. With his thin waders providing no insulation, Pete might as well have been barefoot. Frostbite crossed our minds, especially Pete's. We needed fire.


Soon, we came upon a group of islands and pulled ashore on the first one of size. I scrambled up its bank as Pete yanked on his frozen shoe, got out, and stood in the river. 


I stopped and stared, incredulous. "What in the world are you doing?"


"What do you think I'm doing? I'm trying to thaw my feet! Get moving!"


I looked for a sure spot to build a fire. Dry wood was abundant — mounds of limbs, shards of tree trunks, entire trees jackstrawed by previous flood waters against the standing timber. Some, perhaps, jammed there by Hurricane Camille ten years earlier. Finding the right combination of tinder, twigs, and branches, and a good place for a fire took more time than Pete had hoped. He shivered until a blaze was born, and we were reborn with it. At last, we were thawing sneakers, feet, ourselves. As we revived, we pondered the lack of ducks — we had not seen one.


Things were not going as planned.


Once warmed, we resumed our quest. Downstream, at Goosby Island, we encountered a grim, great roosting of black vultures outlined against the winter sky. They chilled our psyches. I searched for Poe, staring bleakly at us from the bank; he must be there — somewhere. As we slipped by, I glanced back over my shoulder to see if the vultures might follow us downriver. They did, but only with their eyes.


Not having bothered to research our float beforehand, we did not know of the easy channel to the right of Goosby. We went left. Although the rougher rapids there required full attention, we navigated them without incident. Along the way, we must have sailed right by or over the "1774" chiseled in James River bedrock by explorer or eighteenth-century batteaux-man unknown. Even if we had known about it, we would not have searched. Dusk was approaching.


We paddled with more urgency as the sun dipped in the December sky and duck hopes dimmed. Where were they? As we slipped by Rock Island, hugging its southern shore, hoping to jump ducks loitering in its lee, we spied large dark shapes on a far-left gravel bar. More vultures, I assumed.


But wait — no, they were turkeys! With a burst of hurried flapping, they launched and flew south across the James, crossing some twenty yards in front of us. Pete raised his shotgun and fired. "What is happening?" I asked myself. "Does this make sense? Is it even legal?" One shot and one of the smaller birds faltered. A second shot and it tumbled into the James, flailing the water as its flock sought safety across the river.


To call a turkey in a quiet forest, have it come where you want to shoot, then squeeze off a killing shot while sitting still, your back against a tree, is hard enough; hitting one in full flight from an unstable canoe is a different matter. I was impressed.


"Pete, finish it."


"I can't; my gun's jammed!"


This bird was not rising from the James to escape, nor was it swimming away. But it had to be dispatched. I pivoted the canoe in the flow, and the bow swung left, presenting a safe broadside angle. I grabbed my gun, jammed in a shell, and finished the bird.


The current was not swift here. Under control, we stowed guns and paddled over to collect the bird. It was a young hen of the year. We lifted her into the canoe beyond the center thwart, close to Pete. In the canoe's bottom, a drizzle of her blood congealed.


"Great shot, Pete. Amazing! Uh, you've got your tag, right?"


"You bet. I brought everything. You never know what might happen."


Pete and I were of a generation of Virginia boys who had discovered in their teens that if you somehow managed not to kill yourself rambling about in your Daddy's car and just exercised some patience and paid close attention, other things might later transpire there — unexpected things, exciting things. So it now seemed for canoes. But this trip was not yet over. And it was getting late. We had to get moving.


Not far downstream was Hatton Ferry, our takeout. But first, there was Perkins Falls to negotiate — straightforward but one last challenge. As we neared the rapids, I decided we had had enough excitement for the day, especially as darkness approached and temperatures retreated. We drew to an eddy on the left, and I exited the canoe, finding myself in water deeper and colder than I had bargained for. There was no getting back in. Pete remained in the bow, assisting with the occasional shove from a rock as I guided the canoe, negotiating an awkward stumble through the channel I had chosen. Frigid water teased the top of my chest-high waders as I tiptoed to a takeout. And we were done. Almost.


  I felt my body return to life first in my chest, then my arms, my brain — a dimmer switch perceivably reversed. Blood flowed.


As we unloaded the canoe and packed the car in the dark parking area, I shivered into a cold fog — useless — barely aware that I could not help to place the canoe, grab a top line, to tie a knot. I stood by, hopeless, almost helpless; Pete not recognizing that I was sliding into hypothermia. A trip begun with frozen feet was ending with something just as serious. Alone, I would have been in trouble — maybe losing a car key, wandering off, perhaps even trying to drift down to Scottsville in the dark. Then what? If you are bound and determined to do fool things in a canoe in the dead of winter — bring a buddy. They might be a lifesaver.


Pete finished packing and started his car. Somehow, I shed my waders, opened a door, and got in. Pete drove. The car heater worked. As we headed home in the dark, I felt my body return to life first in my chest, then my arms, my brain — a dimmer switch perceivably reversed. Blood flowed.


The drive back was quiet at first, livelier later as we recounted the day's events. Did this all happen? What had we been thinking? Homecoming was a relief for all concerned.


The following week, Pete's bride-to-be, Kathleen, prepared a turkey feast for four. And in a warm kitchen awash with wonderful holiday aromas, the great death-defying, duck-hunting, shoe-freezing, turkey-slaying­, mind-numbing canoe tale was retold — for the first of many times.

 The author and buddy Pete Dalke after a duck hunt, in Oregon, 20 years after the canoe trip


Pete and I are no longer the youngest of men. Two years from that float, minus a wife, I moved to Oregon's Willamette Valley, and a few years after that, Pete and Kathleen to Portland. Here, time has washed over us like a Missoula Flood down the Columbia. Along the way, life has happened — kids, now grown, to Pete and Kathleen, lifetime love to me. And there have been more trips — a lot more. As we have sat at dawn, our backs to gray Valley oaks, whispering our most seductive pleas to the April air, gobblers have tiptoed behind us and ghosted away. They have launched from tall ponderosas and sailed down Cascade foothill slopes to alight between us as, in unison, from adjacent trees, we rose unprepared from unanswered, though not unheeded, calling. In the warm spring woods, we have sat, camoed and still, breeze in our faces, and amazed perplexed deer as they approached step by stiff-legged step, their necks and noses stretching near to comprehend. We have stalked steelhead in the Deschutes and chased chukars far up its canyon walls; shot pheasants as my body wrestled with cancer and chemo; decoyed ducks from my valley club to Sauvie Island to Umatilla. We have logged many miles together and made many memories. But none stands out with such crystalline clarity as that first trip down that distant river of home, where a friendship was forged in ice and fire, a continent — and almost a lifetime away.

About Robbins Church

Robbins Church is a retired aquatic chemist/ecologist. If you come across some old dude fishing single-handed bamboo on the North Umpqua or Deschutes, it's probably him. He lives in Philomath, Oregon.

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