Porcupine Island Black Ducks, by C. D. Clarke

Navigating his malicious law in a Down East peapod.

[by Tom Hennessey]

SNOW WAS FALLING SO FINE AND FAST, it looked like fog when my chocolate Lab, Coke, and I rattled out the back door. On the downside of 4 a.m., with shotgun case in hand and pack basket slung over one shoulder, I hurried toward my pickup parked in the driveway. But before I got there, the back door rattled again, and my wife, who had risen to cook breakfast, called, “Where are you going hunting?”

“Porcupine Island, in the river just below Bucksport,” I answered. The small island is situated snug to the four-mile sprawl of Verona Island, which forms the eastern and western channels of the Penobscot River estuary along Maine’s Midcoast.

“Who are you going with?”

“Coke,” I answered.

I expected the usual Well, be careful. You’re not much, but you’re all I’ve got. Or perhaps some other expression of endearment resulting from 20 years of marriage, three kids, and twice as many dogs. Instead, the response was: “Well, if something happens to you, how will Coke get home?”

“I shudder when thinking of how close I came to being dumped into that breathtakingly cold water. And if something happened to me, how would Coke get home?”

Talk about brevity and clarity.

After letting Coke in the cab and placing my shotgun and pack basket therein, I checked the 15- foot double-ender boat anchored in the truck’s bed with ratchet straps. A 3-horse outboard lay stowed in the boat to keep the motor from bouncing, along with a side-mount bracket, stout oars, and two canvas bags bulging with cork-bodied black duck decoys. Satisfied that everything was secure, I brushed the snow off the truck and climbed in. Time and tide wait for no man, I thought, while spinning out of the driveway and fishtailing onto Route 1A.

For the uninitiated, duck hunting along Maine’s Midcoast is dictated by tides that typically range from 8 to 10 feet. Higher, of course, during phases of the full and new moons. Therefore, the camouflage clan must plan its hunts in accordance with the tides, which also are influenced by winds, storms, and surges from heavy offshore seas. Consequently, tides could run higher, lower, earlier, or later than normal. As can be imagined, more than a few inexperienced and thoroughly embarrassed duck hunters have been left stranded on islands and offshore ledges by expansive and inaccessible mud flats exposed during ebbing tides.

Accordingly, the sprawling mud flats surrounding Porcupine Island at dead-low tide are moats of smooth, deceivingly deep muck. Nevertheless, because black ducks foraged in the mud for periwinkles, insects, worms, and other forms of marine life, I hunted there often after inland marshes and ponds were sealed with ice. If memory serves me, the hunt described herein took place in December 1980. I say that because Coke was three years old, and I had picked him from a litter in 1977.

Ideally, the best time for a blind date on Porcupine Island was during an incoming tide at dawn. Handy to half tide, it was possible to get on the island via a narrow shingle of hardpan extending from a shelf of marsh grass. Depending on wind direction and moon phase, half-tide rising to half-tide falling provided four or five hours of hunting time. Though it usually didn’t take long to bag the daily limit of two black ducks, there were, of course, days when the wary birds shunned decoys completely. Either way, when mud began showing on the ebbing tide, which flowed surprisingly fast, it was time to pick up the decoys and tow a wake back to the landing. All things considered, including harsh weather and unexpected occurrences that precluded hunting, trips to Porcupine Island were planned with guarded optimism.

On this trip, things appeared to be working as planned. After passing through Frankfort village, I was pleased to see the weather turning to a thick drizzle. That, of course, eliminated the annoyance of snow whitewashing the black duck decoys until they looked like snow geese. But when I arrived at the public boat landing on Verona Island, directly across from the town of Bucksport, I grimaced upon seeing the ramp cluttered with several cakes of ice left by the night’s outgoing tide. Fortunately, using an oar, I was able to pry and push the cakes off the ramp.

I wasted no time in backing down to the water’s edge and releasing the boat’s ratchet and web straps. My enthusiasm ended abruptly when, in pulling the boat outward until it was teetering on the tailgate, I backed into the water and realized that my hip boots were still folded and fastened below my knees. For the record, it wasn’t the first time I upheld Murphy’s Law by going in over my boots, nor would it be the last.

Nevertheless, with the outboard clamped to the side mount, Coke seated amidships, and the gunning gear arranged so that the boat was trimmed and balanced, I pushed off from the ramp. The motor coughed and cleared its throat with the first pull of the starter cord. On the second pull it cranked and purred steadily as we headed downriver. Owing to the poor visibility and large cakes of ice riding the river’s current—some longer and wider than the boat—we chugged along at half throttle. Though I shined a flashlight intermittently, its beam offered cold comfort in being reflected by the silvery veil of drizzle.

We were about halfway to the island when, with a slight jolt, the boat slid onto a cake of ice floating almost flush with the water’s surface. Instantly the boat tipped one way, while instinctively I leaned the opposite way, countering the tumbling of Coke, pack basket, gun, and decoys. Though itseemed to be happening in slow motion, the heart-stopping incident ended as quickly as it began. Simultaneously, the ice cake tilted and the boat slid off and floated on an even keel. To this day I shudder when thinking of how close I came to being dumped into that breathtakingly cold water. And if something happened to me, how would Coke get home?