It was two days before Christmas in the early 1950’s. I was up at 4 am, dressed and out of the cellar door with my flashlight in hand. I headed to the boat house, flipped on the light switch that caused the Kohler engine in the barn to startup and illuminate the boat house (Grindstone Island did not have electricity yet).
My father had installed a modern Kohler engine and generator a few years ago; you turned on a light and the engine started, sending electric current to light the bulb on demand. My boat was there, glowing under the light; an 18-foot wooden vessel that was once a St. Lawrence skiff, which I had purchased from my Uncle Jack (Hammersley) for $50.
When I purchased the old boat, it was in rough shape; the stern post and planks were rotted, and the sides were encased with numerous coats of light grey paint that was now mostly chipped off. Only the front deck retained any varnish, and the insides were covered with the same grey paint. I cut off the rotted stern and planks and installed a square stern – a transom – with some of the newly available fiberglass material. Then I installed a solid transom, firmly holding it to the rotted planking; there were so many ribs that were loose at the keel, but at least it didn’t leak. On the new transom hung a 5-HP Johnson motor that I’d purchased from Mercers in Clayton, an after-season motor that no one wanted.
I checked my supplies for a day of duck hunting; I had eleven decoys, with strings and weights, some lead weights, and some bolts. I noticed that only ten of the decoys had heads. My shotgun was a double-barrel Ithaca, which was tied securely between the seats of the boat, a flashlight, a seat cushion, a set of oars, a can of gas, and a canvas jug of coffee. I started the motor and shoved the craft into the water and away I went into the darkness.
There was no wind. I aimed the boat toward Coxes Point, at the mouth of our bay. The lights of Clayton were shining brightly in the distance, and the coal sign was reflecting off the water across the River. Passing Coxes, I stayed close to shore, heading east into the darkness. The little motor hummed along quietly and the lights of Clayton disappeared behind me.
When I reached Point Angiers, it started to snow and I continued along, hugging the shore. The snow was still falling silently, kind of floating down onto the water; there was no sound, except the noise I made setting my decoys in the water, as I had now turned off my motor and was using the oars. I anchored there, the right distance from the duck blind I had constructed several days before and placed my decoys around the marker. My duck blind was a cedar tree that I had cut and dragged to the beach, then piled some large stones to hold it in place. I could sit with my back to the stone wall that I had created and used another stone for my seat.
After a couple of trips to and from my boat, I pulled it behind an old dock that was there – or what was left of it. My boat was almost on the bottom of the river, maybe 6 inches of water was under her keel. I grabbed my old seat cushion to sit on – I had repaired the old, torn cushion with a piece of canvas and I used fiberglass resin as the glue to hold it together.
The snow continued to fall and it was still dark; the only noise was that of the River washing against the shore. Somewhere, off towards the big hill, I heard a tree branch fall. I did not have a watch, but time meant nothing to me at this point. I turned on my flashlight and poured a cup of coffee – no milk, just sugar – it was still warm even though my canvas container was not the best. My mother’s biscuits from last night’s dinner were excellent. Breakfast was now over, and the snow had stopped falling – dawn was coming up over Eel Bay.
Daylight came, and there was not much to see – along the shore toward the big hill, the brown marsh grass began to move and rustle with the wind. The wind also began to ruffle the water making my decoys move more like real ducks. When I checked my decoys, I realized there was one less duck, as one was drifting away heading for the eastern end of Eel Bay.
Suddenly without warning, a pair of fish ducks slammed into my spread. These large fowl with yellow breast were what I had been waiting for! I rushed to level the Ithaca across their heads and pulled the trigger – bang, bang! In my haste, I over-shot and both ducks jumped and flew away.
Eel Bay came to life with the blast of the two shots, startling every duck in the bay. They took to the air – there must have been hundreds, perhaps more like thousands, of birds taking flight in the air – several huge flocks. I was spellbound by the sight of the sky so full of birds wheeling in flocks of different species of birds without color – black, white and brown. Many were even landing again. Hundreds of small flocks just circled round and round over the foot of Grindstone.
There were hundreds of birds around my pitiful group of decoys and now most of them were just slightly outside of range of my shotgun. I aimed and killed three whistlers, a few blue bills dropped in, and I killed three – with each shot more birds rose into the sky. I had enough birds, but a lone cream belly dropped in and I got him, too. I gathered my gear, returned to my boat, loaded my stuff, then rowed out to retrieve my decoys and my kill. I cranked the motor and as I passed the decrepit dock, I deposited the cream belly duck on the dock, hoping some coon or fox would find it and enjoy a nice Christmas meal.
A strong wind was now blowing, but I had no trouble maneuvering the boat until I turned west into Swift Water Channel. The waves were still small because I had stayed close to the shore of Grindstone Island. I entered Rusho Bay and made it past Bentzen’s, staying inside of the two rock islands. I passed close to Charlie’s boat house, crossed to Watson’s to face the big waves. I was in rather big waves at this point and realized that I should have driven straight to the west end of the bay, pulled the boat up on shore and walked home. Now it was too late and I could not turn around because the waves at Watson’s Point were 2 or 3 feet high. I am doing my best to stay close to the shore, as close as I dared at least. The old boat was being put through a real test; the rotted ribs could not be trusted and the boat was wiggling and jostling around so much, that it reminded me of a belly dancer that I once saw.
In front of the Coxes house was the worst of the waves and they were breaking and pounding over the port side of my boat. A turn to the right around the point and I went full speed into the safety of our bay, then slid home to the safety of our dock. Wet, cold, and hungry, I went to the basement to put away my gear – when the familiar smell of bacon cooking upstairs greeted me.
I never used that old skiff again; I hauled her out of the boat house to my father’s nearby workshop and piece by piece my old skiff was consumed by the shop stove. The barn cats were given one of the cream bellies for a meal and the other birds fed our family.
As I reflected on what I had seen in Eel Bay that day, I know that I would never again see so many birds and I never did. I was so grateful then and now to have had this experience.
By Manley L. Rusho
Manley Rusho was born on Grindstone Island nine+ decades ago. Last year, in 2021, Manley started sharing his memories with TI Life. (Manley Rusho articles) This Editor and his many friends wish him continued good health and we thank him, most sincerely, for sharing - as the life and times on Grindstone Island are special and should never be forgotten.
Editor's Note: Manley you have given us, once again, a lovely article about life on Grindstone. Thanks and we wish you a lovely holiday too, stay well.
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