Humbled hunter recalls mistakes in the marsh

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

As told by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn

Duck decoys like these help duck hunters attract waterfowl. The Coast Guard encourages all waterfowl hunters to prepare for the worst-case scenario when headed out on the water. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn.

Duck decoys like these help duck hunters attract waterfowl. The Coast Guard encourages all waterfowl hunters to prepare for the worst-case scenario when headed out on the water. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn.

I was shivering in a marsh one drenched December dusk with only a bruised ego for company. But my pride was giving way to a growing fear about my predicament.

The pelting rain and occasional taunt from a duck’s beating wings were all I could hear over my chattering teeth.

My mind churned with stories of accidents where a hunter didn’t make it home. Ones where people read about it in the paper, then shake their heads and think, “That guy was so foolish.” I knew because I’d been one of those readers.

The morning view of a duck hunter headed out on the water alone in December 2012. Heading out alone landed the hunter in some trouble. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The morning view of a duck hunter headed out on the water alone in December 2012. Heading out alone landed the hunter in some trouble. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Now I was that guy.

Excitement about a duck hunting trip that morning had really clouded my judgment. Now I was stranded in an aluminum boat after a rapidly-receding low tide. If I’m not lying, I was worried.

Duck hunting is an inherently dangerous, labor-intensive endeavor, largely because of the cold conditions and the places you need to be to succeed. There are countless reasons to always hunt with at least one companion. One reason is to make critical decisions together.

After a friend canceled on our hunting plans that morning, my mistake of going out alone now haunted my old boat, stuck and surrounded in waist-deep mud. So did some other foolhardy assumptions I made.

I convinced myself there was no real need to tell anyone where I was going or when I’d be back since I was planning to hunt less than a mile from the boat launch. I had my cell phone, that was enough. EPIRBs and marine radios were for people heading offshore or to the middle of nowhere, I told myself. I chose to ignore that I had no way to recharge my phone, as well as the brisk conditions that robbed it of power.

I assumed the depth of the water where I was hunting would remain good for two more hours at least, based on what the tide seemed to be doing.

Finally, completely wrapped up in the hunt, I lost track of the tide and the time. As far as duck hunting was concerned, I was in an awesome position: hidden from sight, with ducks approaching my decoys both on the water and from the air.

The view from a duck blind near Cocodrie, La., in September 2010. The Coast Guard encourages all waterfowl hunters to prepare for the worst case scenario when headed out on the water to hunt. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn.

The view from a duck blind near Cocodrie, La., in September 2010. The Coast Guard encourages all waterfowl hunters to prepare for the worst case scenario when headed out on the water to hunt. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn.

It wasn’t until there were less than four inches of water left under me that I realized I was stranded. I tried to push out of there through the reeds and the mud, but it was useless. Soon my boat was sitting on the bottom. An icy rain began to pelt my back as I dug into my pockets for my cell phone.

I made a call to my buddy and explained my situation. He rightfully mocked me for being a fool, but told me to check in with him later. I’d simply have wait for the tide to return. At least now I had someone back on shore who understood my situation and location.

As the day’s light began to dim, I realized I was shivering. I’d dressed for a day hunt. I had on a relatively waterproof pair of pants and jacket. But it was now pouring rain, with an air temperature of about 39 degrees. Water was penetrating my gear.

I was in the early stages of hypothermia when the cold killed my phone’s battery.

My shivering grew steadily more violent. I began to experience mild confusion. While silhouettes of mice climbed reeds to peek at the quivering intruder, larger shapes of the marsh played tricks on my mind. I began to wonder what sort of dangerous, hungry creatures lurked nearby.

A duck hunter's view from a boat stranded in a marsh in December 2012. The Coast Guard encourages all duck hunters to prepare for the worst-case scenario when heading out on the water. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A duck hunter’s view from a boat stranded in a marsh in December 2012. The Coast Guard encourages all duck hunters to prepare for the worst-case scenario when heading out on the water. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Still there was nothing to do but wait. Those were some long hours. I ate some crackers I’d brought along, sipped a sports drink and passed time by making up haikus. I recall one in particular:

Stuck in marsh nine hours
Cold and wet but stay with boat
Patience, tide rolls in

The tide did eventually turn. By around 10 p.m., I could feel my boat begin to float. With weak and trembling arms, I used an oar to push the boat through the suction of the surrounding muck. I pulled the start on the ’76 Johnson 2-stroke. It didn’t start at first. That engine never did. But lucky 17 was the charm.

An hour later I arrived at my house, boat in tow behind my truck.

The buddy I’d called just happened to be walking past, returning from a late dinner out.

“Dude, are you okay?” he asked. “I’ve been calling. You’re an idiot, you know that right?”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’ll be fine after a hot shower.”

I’d made it home without help, but was lucky to be home at all. I’d soon have been too weak to get myself out of there.

Nobody plans to break down or get stuck out there in the dark. We all strive to avoid that. But going out alone, with no flares and no reliable means of communication, is a bad way to show our families we care.

I no longer go out alone. I always go prepared for the worst. And I’ll never forget how lucky I am to have suffered those mistakes unscathed.

 


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