Sandy Griswold. January 30, 1921. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 56(16): 5-W. Includes a picture of Crook's Island. Also: 2/6, 59(19): 5-W.
Faded Glories of the Platte; A Tale of Mystic Times
Somewhere along in March, way back in the grand old days, it was in 1888, when I enjoyed one of my first goose hunts out on the beloved old Platte. The Barrister, and Sam Richmond were with me, and that we had a great time, and that it happened over thirty years ago, is all the guaranty anyone who was familiar with the river shooting in those days, will ask.
We were at Clark's of course, as well as at the historic old West House, still standing, but a sad remnant of its glories in the days of which I write.
The day after our arrival was not a typical goose day, by any means, and Sam told us at the outset that we would not accomplish much. It was too calm, sunshiny and spring-like for success in a wild fowling way, and we put in most of the hours reconnoitering. During the morning few birds were seen, and they, high up and a long way off, but as the sun traveled westward great flocks of Canadas came up out of the southern horizon and bore down upon the gleaming Platte, settling with querulous cackling along its thousand bars. We were on the south shore, below Crook's Island-named by myself a couple of years previous, after General George Crook, who was on a goose hunt, and who, after a wonderful escape, being lost in a terrific blizzard, more dead than alive, was found, curled up in the willows on this little islet-and for an hour before dark we witnessed one of the most thrilling sights ever fashioned for hunters' eyes.
Coming in, every minute or so, high above us in the nebulous sky, were thousands upon thousands of these magnificent birds. They took good care to keep out of reach of even Sam's famous old 10-bore Parker, clanging out their wild signals, and by turns showing triangles of ducky browns and snowy whites, while, as they veered round, for up of down the river, or rose higher on their majestic voyage, as they passed over us unheeding Sam's most seductive call, but moved on out over the broad river and settled serenely upon its long, glistening bars. Flock succeeded flock until scores became hundreds and hundreds thousands, in that wondrous evening convocation on the flowing, ice-clogged river, on that never-to-be-forgotten March evening of the hallowed long ago.
Those were days when goose shooting was goose shooting and the Platte, the Platte, the days of which such old hunters as the venerable George H. Hoagland, and the few that are left, love to descant upon, love to swing round and go back to, by memory's ever charming and mystic route. On two or three occasions, old Sam was successful in luring a single goose from the passing throng, and, reluctantly detaching itself from a flock it would set its broad sails and slide and veer in circuitous descent toward our decoys, sometimes calling back solicitously to its late companions as if in reproach at their stubbornness, or questioning the soundness of its own discretion, but coming in on towards us waiting hunters. It would sometimes escape one or the other of the blinds, only to glide boldly into another, and receive an ounce of No. 1s for its temerity-we used only big shot for geese in those days.
For the greater part of the time our counterfeit stools, and the almost incessant calling of old Sam, failed to excite the least apparent attention from the steady and seemingly endless waves of incoming geese, majestically thrilling, with that mighty wing beat that seems so slow when you see a flock approaching from afar, but which is really so swift and effective, they came, passed over us and then went on, up and down the river, until its surface seemed alive with them. Hard to believe, forsoothe, in these lean days, but absolutely true, nevertheless.
It was long after dark when we again landed in that begrimed, but beloved and legendary old bar-room-all hotel offices in those times, were bar rooms, in the prevailing nomenclature of the West House, but a good substantial supper put us all in the most brotherly of humors, and the evening fled on silvered feet in the discussion of that wondrous flight we had witnesses, and what it probably meant for us during the next few days to come.
Suddenly, Old Uncle George West, just as we were preparing to retire, came in from out on the front board walk, where he had been for a final look at the weather, and threw a wet blanket over our enthusiasm by exclaiming:
"You'll have a storm before daylight, and no shooting in the morning."
And true enough, a little after midnight the old frame hostelrie was bombarded with a fierce sleet, and echoing from every angle and every corner, came the weird moaning and shrieking of a wild nor'wester, as it tore transversely across that lonely little hamlet of Clarks. Everyone confessed to having been awakened by its fury, and when our party reassembled at the breakfast table, there was no thought of going down on the river, so furious was the wind and so heavy the snowfall. Snow had succeeded the sleet, and it had drifted into an indistinguishable level every walk, path and opening. And more than this, it was evident that the river had frozen solid.
After dinner, however, the snow fell less heavily and the wind veered to the north. I was tired of loading cartridges-we loaded our own in those days-and smoking, and the strong rivalry that existed among us impelled me to attempt the decidedly hazardous undertaking of going out to the east bar and try to secure a goose or two. In vain my comrades tried to induce me to give up the idea, but failed, but none of them would go with me.
I prepared as speedily as possible for the adventure, and in West's old single horse express, I was shortly on the way to the river, I reached the shore in due time, hitched my rig in a wind-blow, and started for a distant towhead-Crooks Island-with a sack of decoys over my shoulder.
Under the protection of the timbered shores there was a partial calm, and the only inconvenience I experienced were the deep drifts that barred my way out over the frozen river. The ice, as I had thought, was stout enough to have borne a four-horse team, and once, on reaching a barren stretch, the walking was not so bad, and I rapidly drew near the island, aided by the wind, which at times blew so fiercely that I had to brace my back against it to keep from being blown sprawling. When about 200 yards from the Island a big flock of Canadas and speckled front rose from the offside of the Island, and with dissonant cries were soon in the ragged scud to the leeward.
On nearing the old towhead, I saw a single Canada goose sitting on the ice, over the low will underbrush on the other side. I saw him lift his jet black head, and I knew he was going, so I fired, at about eighty yards, I should judge. He flew with a disgruntled "auh-unk!" fluttering suspiciously down the wind, alighting at about every twenty-five yards or so, and I knew a stray pellet or two had found the mark, and dropping my sack of decoys, I followed him, as fast as possible, in fact until I dared go no further out on that trackless and storm-swept river. He of course, got away.
Getting back to the island I realized for the first time, that it was rapidly growing colder. It was all I could do to regain that little cane crowned tuft in the teeth of the savage wind. However, I was game, and after a laborious hour of it, had my profiles out and was snuggled down in the brush and weeds, like a cottontail in its form, and waited.
I was facing the southwest, and for comfort, leaned back against stout willows and gave myself up to listening to the hollow roar and moaning of the barbarous winds, and watching the besmudged sun slowly fall through the gray ocean of the heavens toward the rim of the western hills, now completely blotted out.
It was still snowing, but thinly, and with some relief, I felt that the storm was abating. All at once I was aroused from shivering dreams, by the sounding "unk-auh-unk! unk! unk!" of a goose close at hand, and as I cocked my gun and cuddled still closer to the ground, a large flock swept down to the leeward, and gracefully sweeping round came back toward me heavily against the still stiff gale. It was hardly necessary for me to send forth once or twice that guttural call, Old Sam had taught me, long drawn out and quavering with welcoming and deceitful enticement, with which a settled flock always greets newcomers.
The old white cravated pilot passed so close to my head, as they swept athwart the Island that, it seemed, I could have struck him with my gun barrel, and more than a score of ebony heads, white breasts, broad whiffing wings and dusky feet shot over me to the upper extremity of my line of decoys, and there, with congratulatory gutturals, alighted.
Five birds only settled out to one side, and where I had an unobstructed view of them, and the heads and necks of three of them were closely aligned. I could not turn myself to fire at the main bunch without being seen by these five, so I drew down on the three, and at the crack of my piece they tumbler over just like puppets on a stage of Marionettes. With wild, distracted clamorings the balance of the big flock rose up into the storm, and as they hung irresolute in the ruck, I gave them my second barrel, and was thrilled to the bone when I beheld two more fold up those great gray sails and come whirling to the snow streaked ice.
And the night, black as a wolf's mouth, shut down upon me, but what I suffered, and how I got home, we will lay over until another week.
After slipping in a couple of more shells, I laid my gun down and went out upon the ice and gathered my dead birds, returning to the blind and once more cuddled up to await a final shot. Darkness, however, was creeping up rapidly from the east, and the weather increasing again in severity, I cut the cord from the decoy sack, tied my five big geese together by their neck, and, hanging the loop on the barrel of my gun, I stepped out upon the ice and started for shore, leaving the decoys standing where they were.
The wind was growing stronger every minute and the cold more intense, while the pressure of the geese on my back and of the gun on my shoulders added to the strain on my lungs and heart and, changing the burden from one shoulder to the other at increasing intervals, I pressed on resolutely for the shore, now but a confused blur in the darkness and the snow and the sleet again driving pitilessly across the river from the north.
Once I heard the call of geese close at hand, and hastily cleared my gun of its freightage, but I only caught a glimpse of several dark shadows which, swifter than the hurricane's blast, swept between men and a tiny rift in the flying scud, and then, like sheeted ghosts, vanished in the black gulf beyond.
Yard by yard and rod by rod, I laboriously worked my way to the windward, frequently halting to draw a free breath and as frequently turning my back to the fiercer squalls, and walking backward until they passed, when, again facing what I thought was the proper course, I plodded diligently ahead.
Suddenly I realized that long ere this I should have reached the shore and dropping the geese to the ice I stopped and, shielding my eyes with my mittened hands, tried to determine just where I was. I could not make out a single landmark, could see nothing through the confused murk and, with an ominous roaring in my head and a wild thumping of my heart, I knew that I was lost.
While extremely uneasy, I was no coward, under the circumstances. I had been lost before in the big woods on the North Peninsula of Michigan while deer hunting on a cold, roaring November afternoon and never once got panic-stricken, and it was two nights and the most of two days before I finally reached the old Carson lumber camp o the Thunder Bay river. But I was younger than and filled with the indomitable and adventurous spirit of a sturdy old stock, and with all my confidence in myself and my natural resources it took more than being merely lost in the big woods to really scare me.
But that March night on the Platte, when I again picked up my birds, shouldered them and faced the storm to start I found it a huge task. Then I thought of General Crook; how he had gone astray precisely as I now found myself, just a couple of years previously, and in exactly the same locality; how he would have surely frozen to death in the willows of the little island I had just left had it not been for the perseverance, hardihood and wisdom of such men as the late John Petty and Dr. Richardson of Clarks, and I felt some qualms about just what was to be my own fate.
The renewed blast was now upon me in all its wild and unbridled impetuosity, its remorseless ferocity, and in the tangle of a swirl of blinding sleet and rain and snow my heart crowded into my throat. But I heroically struggled on-I knew not where-and never once thought of abandoning my geese!
My most strenuous efforts to reach the shore, somewhere, anywhere, continued to result in disheartening failure, and at last it flashed into my brain that I was absolutely in imminent danger. Made of the right stuff, however, I still perserved and after many stops to take my bearings, to study the character of my immediate surroundings and note the direction of the storm, I would move on again with even braver steps and sturdier determination than before, but just as ignorant of my exact whereabouts and just as blind as ever.
Everything seemed to be swallowed up in the most hopeless confusion, made more fearsome by the roaring and shrieking of what sounded to my hearing like human voices, and try as I might, there was no determining the true direction of the storm. Struggle this way or that, the hands of numerous devils seemed holding me back, and the gale kept on shrieking over the black expanse and around about from all directions at once, converging like a howling cohort of demons upon my devoted head.
The sleet and icy snow were now streaming over all the earth and all the frozen river in one continuous sheet, sweeping everything before them with the roarings of hungry wolves close onto their doomed quarry, first this way and then that, like evil spirits bent upon diabolical ends.
From the nature of my footing and the regular rush of the blizzard, I felt that I was still somewhere far out on the broad river, but in the horrible fury of the elements I could not tell in which direction refuge lay. Yet I never believed that I was hopelessly lost and though blinded and baffled by the driving sleet and snow, which came in such resistless whirls and eddies, I struggled on. I knew in constant motion lay my salvation. In the very midst of all the wild and awful din there were seeming intervals of such deathlike stillness that they were even more appalling than all the uproar. This is one of the mysterious features of a Nebraska blizzard, and all those who have really encountered one will recall these tomblike spells which ever and anon fall upon the rageful rush of the tempest.
On, on ceaselessly on, I labored heroically. There were times when I seemed to make literally no progress at all, when every landmark known to my practical senses was lost, and I felt, finally, as I plodded and stumbled forward, as if I was tramping to my own funeral. Now I stumbled through some drift, and once I thought I felt the sands of a bar under my rubber boots, but there never was any cessation, save of this mystic intervals mentioned, in that deep, menacing general roar, coming and going like those chilling sounds we hear at dead of night coming from the wraithful ocean, and truly I might have felt that my only companion was-Death!
Why not? Even though I was perfectly familiar with these wild storms on our prairies, even though I was versed in all their dark vagaries, as the student is in his books, I was not superhuman. Why not, I repeat, might I not be plodding to my own funeral? Others, even more learned in such weird lore, more wise and fearless and courageous than I, had been lost in just such storms-others had been submerged in just such avalanches of sleet and snow, only to be thawed out and found rigid and lifeless in the sunlight of a future day.
However, I was not the man to be easily deprived of my wits, and yet an increasing uneasiness was creeping over me. This, I mentally mused, was my closest call, and the situation was growing worse with every step I took. I was almost ready to drop from exhaustion. But I knew this meant the end sure and speedy.
If I could only find shelter somewhere-the smallest of towheads would have shielded me from the freezing blast-and I could stop, at least briefly, for rest. But I stumbled onto none, and I dared not think of rest. My heart began to quicken in its beats, and my flounderings had become reckless. Then a frantic determination seized me. I must get out of that black and howling blast at once or never. I was actually mad, and even raised my voice in profane defiance of the rancorous powers besetting me.
Surely that was the sound of a human voice, or as it the bark of a dog or the yawn of some skulking coyote, or but another wail of the wind?
One last effort and I staggered forward-and banged into the abrupt shore, amidst its dwarf willows and weeds. With a gurgle in my throat I tossed gun and geese out before me, then on hands and knees crawled up onto the bare ground, where the wind had swept it clean of snow.
How I made those last laps of that horrible race I shall never know. More than once I was on the verge of swooning, for my throat and mouth were parched and my lungs seemed cramped with my heavy burden, but in the desperation of a last hope I staggered on and met the ever friendly outstretched hand of Providence!
And then there was a broad rift in the black skies above me-stars, the brightest ones I ever saw, twinkled forth and cast a faint luster upon the earth, and I saw in astonishment, as well as incredulity, that I had come out of the river at the very spot I had entered it some six or eight hours before.
Luckily, half dead with the cold, I reached the very windblow where I had left the horse and wagon. I felt that it would be again tempting fate to waster time in endeavoring to find them. The horse had probably pulled himself free and gone home. So I hung my geese in the willows and started for Clarks afoot, but in the rapidly increasing light from the sundered clouds above.
I had just reached the old roadway when I heard the creak of wheels in the frozen ruts ahead of me, and then old Sam's voice came to me, in those vibrant, cheering tones he always used, in weal or woe:
"We've got to find that damned fool, and find him quickly, too. 'Spose he's stiff as a poker by this time, but we've got to find him, damn him, that's all!
And they did.
Now as I sit here writing these lines on this trenchant February day, I can still hear the wild clangor of that rising flock of geese, and while there is an indefinably exquisite charm in recalling my terrible trials and, glowing in the physical and mental strength and endurance and faith that had made it possible for me to postpone the last great adventure, I would not take such a chance again for all the geese between Tierra del Fuego and the north pole.
Oh, yes, the recollection of that scene of storm and danger is now really inspiring; the swirling clouds of murk and sleet and rain and snow, a halo of glory, and the mental picture of those five big Canadas, as they lay on the floor late that night, with Sam and Bill, old Uncle George and the womenfolk around, and the lingering flavor of that amber Yellowstone we all did drink to one another, is the outstanding picture of all the wonderful hunts of my life.