“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee’
The lake it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy”
These classic song lyrics from Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” haunt the forefront of my mind as I put pen to page in an effort to somehow capture the events of this true Adirondack Outlaw father/son canoe mounted duck hunt survival story.
It was early Friday afternoon, October 15, 2021. My son RJ and I had just rendezvoused at South Creek for our annual father/son duck hunting trip. It was unusually warm. The water in the creek coming down off of Stony Creek Mountain was quite low. The winds were dead calm as we loaded hunting gear and guns into our camouflage painted fourteen-foot aluminum Grumman canoe. Nothing in the sky gave us warning of the events or experience to come.
We had not originally planned a Friday afternoon hunt. It was a last-minute call. Schedule and circumstance had allowed each of us to scramble a bit and make it happen.
I had stopped by and checked in at Tupper Lake’s Park Motel on my way through town, our accommodations for the weekend. We had camped for our hunt the previous year in the then newly replaced Martha Reben lean-to. But given the somewhat soggy weather reports predicted for the Saturday and, to a lesser degree, the Sunday ahead, we had opted for comfort over camping for this year’s iteration.
Friday’s duck hunt was quiet and enjoyable. Lake traffic was nil, as were the winds. The lake was mirror-like calm. The ducks, mostly blacks, however, were curiously flocked up, on edge, skittish. We had little luck getting anywhere near into range, until just before sunset, when RJ successfully downed one nice hen mallard.
The day’s legal shooting time at an end, we headed back up the creek, debarked our canoe, loaded gear into our vehicles, and headed back towards Tupper for dinner, a shower, and a good night’s sleep. We wanted to be well rested for the two full days of hunting that was still ahead.
We awoke early on Saturday. It was still dark. It had rained overnight. We turned on the local news. A bespectacled weatherman kept walking back and forth across the screen, and then standing dead center in front of the weather map.
He referred repeatedly to severe storms and tornado warnings, down south of us, near Lodi/Interlaken. They were predicted to head east, but to the best we could tell, stay well south of us. It was a bit hard to tell though, as apparently the young man on the TV screen mistook himself for the weather map.
From what we could gather, we agreed. It would be warm, but intermittently wet. It looked like we might get a half inch of rain or so, and the day’s skies would be overcast. Not a bad duck hunter’s weather report, actually. Overcast days generally work to the hunter’s advantage. Still, we dressed and packed our gear expecting what might be some brief periods of steady October rain.
The South Creek parking lot was near vacant, as we anticipated. We always wait until after both the reservation camping and fall foliage season have ended. Those factors, plus the weather, again served to our advantage. We once again loaded gear and guns into our trusty fourteen-foot aluminum Grumman canoe and set sail.
“The ship was the pride of the American side…
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland”
The morning hunt was unremarkable. The ducks were still flocked up and skittish, the skies overcast. There was a breeze on the lake, but nothing noteworthy. We’d many times weathered much worse.
We worked our way down along the shore, hoping to scare up some ducks. We had a few long-range encounters, but, as we came around the bottom of the lake towards the mouth of the river and Bull Rush Bay, no success bagging one.
We had contemplated hunting the upper river, thinking maybe more ducks would be pooled up there, but a pontoon boat came upstream just as we were getting started, so that put the kibosh to any further thoughts of pursuing that endeavor.
It had begun to sprinkle lightly. We looked skyward. The skies had noticeably darkened. The breeze coming across the lake was picking up, so we decided to take a break and stop in to visit our trusty old friend, the Bull Rush Bay lean-to.
A pleasant surprise greeted us there. Our Bull Rush Bay lean-to had been replaced with a brand spanking new one! From the looks of the piles of lumber and debris neatly stacked at the site, it looked like the crew who had built it had only very recently finished.
The new cedar log structure was expertly crafted. We were aware that the DEC had been planning to do so. My brother Ray and I had put significant effort into making our input heard. I have chronicled those chapters elsewhere. (See “Those Cedar Logs” and “The Phoenix Rises!”). I won’t reprise them here.
The sprinkle turned to a steadier rain. The winds picked up too. Whitecaps were becoming visible further out on the lake. We unloaded gear and guns into the new lean-to.
RJ grabbed a quick snack and settled in for a short nap while I called my brother Ray and my wife Robin to share the new lean-to news. I filled them each in on the weather and our plans for the remainder of the day. I then snapped some photos and took in a quick Starbucks double espresso shot-double mocha-quadruple sugar enhanced-syringe plunged “Rocket Fuel” meal via my G-tube.
After about an hour we walked down to the lake shore. It was shortly after 10am. The waves had picked up a bit, but, for the moment at least, the rain had let up. The sky was overcast to the west. While we had packed prepared for weather contingencies and a night in the woods if circumstance absolutely dictated, we agreed, that was not this day’s desired agenda or plan. We decided to take advantage of what appeared to be something of a “weather window”, re-load the canoe, and continue our hunt on up towards the next lean-to, “Martha Reben.”
RJ manned the canoe’s bow. He was paddler and gunner. I manned the stern. We both had guns loaded, but I was strictly back up. My job was to captain our vessel and guide the day’s hunt. None of that mattered much anyways. The ducks were all clearly far smarter than us. There were none on the lake. They were all probably sitting in a duck diner somewhere, sipping coffee and trading duck banter with waitresses.
The first deluge held off just long enough for us to clear Bull Rush Bay. We were hugging the shoreline, working our way slowly towards Bartlett Island. It came on quite suddenly. Wind fed waves grew whitecap rough. The downpour drenched everything. Dark clouds hugged the water.
We paddled along the rocky shoreline, up past tent camp sites 65 & 66. As we struggled to keep the winds from crashing our vessel up into the rocks, I had visions of a canoe rescue my brother Ray and I had executed in that very same spot several years earlier. My rock ballad rescue tale twice published; titled “Smoke on The Water”, documents that experience. RJ had camped through that storm’s events also.
Determined not to repeat history and become “Smoked, 2.0”, we decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and sought cover in a small cove up behind Bartlett Island to ride out what we hoped was a short burst of the “half inch or so of intermittent rain” that the bespectacled TV weather man who mistook himself for the map had just that morning predicted.
We pulled our canoe ashore, taking cover from wind and rain behind a big shoreline cedar. It was by then about 10:30 a.m. We considered abandoning our hunt right there and then and crossing the lake back to South Creek, but the whitecaps out on the middle of the lake looked prohibitively ominous. We decided our safest bet was to continue hugging the shoreline and keep hunting during breaks in the day’s weather while carefully circumnavigating the lake.
“And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?”
When one looks at a map, and the next two points of land one must canoe circumnavigate are aptly named “Umbrella Point” and “Windy Point”, that should serve as fair warning. However, my son RJ and I being father/son stubborn rock heads, it didn’t. Once the winds died down to a dull roar and the deluge to sprinkle, we were off. In our minds, we were already wet anyways, might as well make the best of it.
We actually caught a bit of a break coming around Umbrella Point. Once past Half Way Island, staring past Windy Point into Hungry Bay, the waters actually looked invitingly calm. We passed close by several loons, there were however, no ducks. Discouraged but undeterred, we continued towards Martha Reben, where we had thoughts of taking a break for some lunch.
Another problem arose, however, as we rounded Windy Point, a trolling motor boat had spotted us, crossed the lake, and was now tailing us. Now, it’s hard enough to duck hunt a stormy lake from a canoe. It’s all but impossible with an entourage.
The guy kept tailing us, much to our annoyance. As we neared the Martha Reben lean-to site, his motivation became clear. The guy was clearly homesteaded there, which was by all means his right. It did not however, in our minds, entitle him to birddog us across half the lake.
Finally, though, as we crossed Hungry Bay and reached the entrance to the channel leading towards Weller Pond, he turned off. I’m not quite certain what he thought he was accomplishing though, other than pissing us both off.
The rain had let up for the time being, but the skies were quite dark. It was nearly 11:30 by then. We decided to continue as planned, hoping the ducks had sought refuge within Weller’s protected confines.
Long story short, they hadn’t. We paddled up into Little Weller Pond- nothing. We paddled over onto Weller Pond- the same, duck devoid. It once again began to rain. This time much harder. We hoped to find lunch break respite in the site 87 Weller Pond lean-to, but alas, we could see as we approached that it too was occupied. So, rain soaked in a downpour, we sought refuge once again, on site 86, near Tot Island.
“And every man knew, as the captain did too
T’was the witch of November come stealin’”
We did not stay there long. We were dressed for the weather; neoprene chest waders, “Frog Tog” rain gear, etc. but after a while, in a rainstorm like that, rain begins to seep through everything. The forest was dripping. We had fire starting gear, but successfully starting one at that moment in time would be highly questionable. The last time I had updated my wife and brother on our whereabouts, we had been in the lean-to at Bull Rush Bay. That had been over two hours ago. There was no cell service in Weller Pond. The only saving grace was that outdoor temperatures were still unseasonably warm. We decided once again to drive on.
By that point, we were both discouraged, beginning to tire. Each time we dipped our paddles into the water, it just seemed to rain harder. We worked back up through the creek into Hungry Bay. Our birddogging fisherman friend had returned to his camp. We had half a mind to pull in join him for lunch inside the lean-to, but we didn’t.
Instead, we decided to get ourselves across Hungry Bay to the lake’s west shore. From there we would have some protection from the wind, and would be in a position at the very least to work our way around to South Creek without having to negotiate the whitecaps now dangerously wicked, on the body of the lake.
Our guns were still loaded, but we were no longer hunting. We would have unloaded them, but the water was so rough, we felt it safer just to lave them be for the moment, and keep paddling.
Of course, in the center of Hungry Bay, three mergansers flared across directly in front of us. They must have been part mocking bird. We just put our heads down and kept going.
The canoe had taken on a fair amount of water as we finally neared the far shoreline. We were riding pretty low. There’s a line of private camps along that side. Our goal was to make it around “Stormy Point”. In our assessment, once we got that far, we could shoreline walk our canoe out if we absolutely had to.
It just kept raining harder. We were both paddling for all we were worth. We passed one vacant camp dock. Stormy Point lied ahead.
“At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it’s been good to know ya
The captain wired in, he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.”
Everything suddenly went wild. The skies opened up. The winds whipped the lake into a frothing frenzy. Thunder clapped. Lightning flashed. I heard RJ’s voice yell over the rumbles.
“DAD! We need to get off the water! RIGHT NOW!”
I jammed my paddle deep into the water on the canoe’s right stern side with every last ounce of strength I could muster. The bow lurched to the right, water came over the gunnels, we were momentarily broadside to the waves, pointed towards Stormy Point’s rocky shores, as lightning flashed once more.
I suddenly heard a voice in my head form the past. It was my Lake Colden Supervisor, Jim, during my time on a DEC trail crew, yelling “ROW DICKIE, ROW!”, as we raced an old aluminum row boat against lightning storms across Lake Colden’s mountain lake waters.
“Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.”
At that moment, simultaneously, as a big gust of wind came up and threw our canoe sideways to the left, Stormy Point’s dock appeared. I’m still not quite sure if we jumped or were thrown, but in either event, RJ and I found suddenly ourselves sprawled on the dock, holding onto our aluminum U-boat for dear life, in a thunder storm.
“Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.”
Lightning flashed yet again. We quickly tied off the canoe, took refuge on shore, and unloaded our shotguns. We sat there momentarily. We were now trespassers. We’d deal with that fact in a moment. Right that instant, we needed to rescue that canoe and our gear from the water.
We piled soaked gear with our guns near a steep set of stairs on shore. We pulled the canoe from the water. It was about half full. We tipped it over and emptied it, the lake level immediately went up two full inches. We then left the canoe tipped over on the dock while we sought refuge with our guns and gear under shore line cedars, caught our collective breath, and further assessed our situation.
“Wonder if anybody’s home.”
We decided to walk up the camp steps and check.
The Stormy Pont camp appeared to be unoccupied. I wasn’t really sure if that was good or bad. Neither of us was really comfortable in our current plight as trespassers. Nonetheless, for better or worse, there we were.
The camp did not have a porch, which is what we had been hoping for. We ended up sharing refuge from the rain with the firewood stacked behind the cabin in a small lean-to like woodshed. All I could think about at that moment was movie scenes of escaped convicts caught hiding out in someone’s woodshed or barn.
It was by now after 1pm. We were more than a little damp by then, and nearly exhausted. The good news was, we had cleared the last point. We both knew that once the winds died down, we could get the canoe safely back to South Creek from there. After about half an hour in the woodshed, we got what looked like another window. We took it.
Once across the west end bays and the inlet, we worked down the shoreline towards South Creek. The lake calmed down towards late afternoon. There were still no ducks. Having somehow survived the storm, we headed towards the hotel.
That hunt was an experience that RJ and I will never forget. I remember telling him on our first duck hunting trip on the lake, during which we bagged five ducks under mirror like lake conditions on a bluebird sky day;
“Son, remember this hunt, they will not all be like this.”
RJ commented as we hit the parking lot;
“Dad, if this was someone’s first duck hunt up here, they would never come back.”
He was most probably right.
In the end though, this hunt too, had a happy ending. The next morning, we hunted once more. The storm had apparently blown in a few early migrators. RJ bagged a ringneck, and thus we carried on our father/son tradition of Sunday brunch on the lake.
We will undoubtedly both remember this duck hunt forever. When RJ’s own children whine or cry about being wet or tired on the lake, he’ll have a story to tell them, about the time he and their grandfather survived the storm.
“For the legend lives on from the Chippewa on down…
When the gales of November come early.”
All photos by Richard Monroe