By Harry Whited*
On the New Seward Highway just as you are about to leave Anchorage, lies Potter’s Marsh. To the east stands the great Chugach Mountain Range and to the west lies the railroad tracks. On the other side of the tracks are the ducks so that is where we would go.
The season for waterfowl in Anchorage opens on September 1st and does not close until December. The season is short and fast and hard and difficult but one who is willing to brave these challenges is sure to have a wonderful day.
We would get up around 4:30 in the morning when the air was still violently cold and load up the gear we had staged in the garage the night before. Once the gear was loaded into the truck we made for the New Seward Highway which snaked its way across the Cook Inlet.
When the truck was parked on the side of the highway and leaning at a scary, nearly 45-degree angle toward a ditch at the base of the railroad tracks, we knew we were in the right spot. We had to hike up the steep rocky banks of the tracks and look both ways before walking about 50 yards down the tracks so as to not be obliterated by a train.
We could hear the sound of the rushing inlet water coming from the storm drain that leaked into the marsh as we climbed down the rocky banks and began our trek through the wet marsh to the blind which sat roughly 100 yards from the tracks. It was at this time we would load our shotguns for fear of spooking the rutting moose that would linger in the darkness of the marsh. They were aggressive at this time of year but their aggression could never compare to that of a determined duck hunter.
Once at the blind, we would set up our gear in a nice plot of water that sat about 30 yards from the blind. We would spread the decoys in neat, concentrated clusters and always leave a strip of water for the ducks to land in. There was no use for any rigging of the decoys, as the water was not deep enough, and when hit with the right wind the decoys came to life and created their own motion in the silty water.
The tide was out at this time. We would have to wait and watch as the day went on to make sure the water never got too high or came up too fast for fear of being stranded or washed out to the inlet. We had to stay vigilant.
The blind faced the mountains in the east and behind the blind to the west was the inlet where the tide would come up as the morning ticked away. The birds would camp out on the shores of the inlet and as the water rose they would be forced to find sanctuary on the other side of the tracks at Potter’s Marsh. We were in their flight path.
Like all good duck hunts, we would start the mornings in the blind with coffee and donuts and storytelling. The eager anticipation for shooting light was exhilarating and we would sit patiently like and wait for the sun to creep its way ever so slowly over the tops of the snow-dusted mountains in the east. When the time came, the marsh would stand still until that first shot was fired.
Shooting light usually began at around 6 AM and the birds did not really start flying until 6:30 or sometimes 7:00. Once they were up, the morning would come alive.
At around 8:00, the muddy floor of the blind would be sprinkled with red 12 gauge shells. As any duck hunter would admit there were always more shells on the ground than there were ducks brought back to the blind.
The ducks would usually come from the west and go east but every so often, ducks would come from the east, over the tracks, and fall into our spread. As the sun came up the light would illuminate the birds and turn up their colors so we could see them in all their glory. Shots would ring out and large splashes would be made in the water as the ducks plummeted down. The light would shine off that water all morning.
Next to the blind, to the south, was a deep trench carved out by the inlet’s tide. Its walls were high and muddy and if a duck fell into it it was unretrievable as was the hunter who was dumb enough to wade into the ditch and retrieve it.
There was a time one morning when I shot at one flying over the trench. A bad decision on my part. The duck fell on the other side of the trench and I looked at my Dad who told me with his eyes that I had to go get that bird. I hiked back to the tracks and walked about a half mile down the active railroad tracks to where the trench finally stopped and climbed down and began my walk back to the other end. Once I was at the other end I found the bird put it on the string and carried it back with me, through the marsh, up the rocks, down the tracks, and into the blind.
When the morning was over around 11 AM we would pack up the gear and always leave the blind better than we found it. The tide would come in now, flooding the marsh with rising water that made the muddy ground sticky and difficult.
It was a race against the tide. Getting washed out was always a possibility. The water would come in fast and unexpectedly. We would look out at the inlet and the rising tide which had once been a small sliver on the horizon. It now looked like a bumpy ocean not 40 yards away from our blind.
We would wade through the rising water and make our way back to the storm drain before the tide came in and washed us out completely. Our crossings could be treacherous. If we waited too long, the water would flood the trails back to the tracks and we would have to hike farther down the marsh to a spot where the water was lower.
Back at the house we would clean the birds in the front yard and horrify neighbors walking by with small children as one of us would pluck the feathers off the birds and one of us would serve as the “butcher” cutting up pieces of the bird and bringing it inside to be eaten for breakfast.
The adventure would end with bellies full of breakfast, naps on the couch, and the energetic feeling of wanting to do it all again the next day.
*Harry is a native of Alaska and now works at Great Blue Heron while attending the University of Kansas.