A warm thermos cap of coffee steams in my hand as I slowly pull down my neck gaiter on a 25-degree morning in paradise. The sunrise over the far trees is neon red, mirroring the ripples on the water in front of the ancient duck blind. A small flock of wood ducks whistles overhead three minutes before shooting light. That first sip is pure happiness.
Everyone has their spot. Could be a well-worn stool at the local pub, a section of trail on a mountain slope in Utah, or the rocking chair on your back porch. Mine is a 40-acre plot in northern Wisconsin that does little more than require you to be there to lighten your soul.
It’s a sliver of land that connects a large state protected marshland to a large chain of lakes. Water flows from the marsh through our tiny plot into these lakes and thanks to the commitment of some studious beavers, backs up and floods to form the perfect 15-acre duck pond.
Being a marshland in northern Wisconsin it’s only viable to be back there during the fall and winter. Ticks have infested the grounds and it’s not possible to get out during the spring and summer months without a fist full of those fuckers burrowing into your undercarriage.
Life stands still in the winter up north. The marsh freezes solid, and snow is measured in feet rather than inches. Often too deep to hike, snowshoes provide access to the far side, which is otherwise only accessible by canoe. Hundreds of miles have been snowshoed back here and onto the public marsh it pushes up against. We’ve gotten lost and nearly had to spend a blistering cold night, but thankfully our stars have aligned, and there’s never been a major accident.
Things really light up in the fall. Large flocks of ducks and geese have called the surrounding marshlands home for more than the 3 generations it’s been in our family. Migrating birds swing through on their short stay when the weather pushes them south. A small herd of deer graze the surrounding forest, even the local albino stud has been known to make an appearance. The ruffed grouse, king of the upland game birds, have given many a near heart attack—although they are much more easily hunted on the local logging roads. King of the marsh though is a 500lb black bear we call Hank. He wanders home after munching on cranberries all day at the bogs down the road. Not sure how old he is, but one day we’ll finally draw a bear tag and find out.
These hallowed grounds have led to some unbelievable hunts, some miserable ones, and a few with water filled waders. I’ve trained 3 dogs back here to carry on the tradition that 8 more had before them. They’ve left an unforgettable yet unseen mark on this place. A duck dog is home back in the pond. They always come ready for an adventure, even if that adventure is dunking the canoe and almost drowning you on a 20-degree day.
First hunts, memorial ceremonies, and innumerable other memories have graced this land. My wife even encouraged the idea of heading back there for her first duck hunt mere hours after I proposed. The hunting is great, but the wildlife only starts there. Trumpeter swans swing in from the big marsh on occasion and sing to us. The aforementioned beavers have become an unlikely ally as they dam up the water, so it doesn’t dry up like it did in 2004. Owls feast on yard grizzlies, woodpeckers make their way with trees, and bald eagles circle above scanning for their next meal. One significantly large bald eagle even constructed a nest opposite the old duck blind, which it inhabited for 6 years.
Outside of worn-down grass on the drive in and trails to the duck blinds and tree stand, nothing has disturbed this land since 1967. It will stay that way as long as it’s in our family, as our house is located on another parcel across the street. Its entrance is guarded by overhanging branches thick with leaves that, unless you know where to look, won’t give up the narrow driveway.
Is it the top of a mountain overlooking a great Alaskan range? No, but who cares. That morning cup of coffee can’t be beat.