Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. February 21, 1904. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 42=39(144): 18. Story repeated January 30, 1921.

A Stormy March Day With the Canada Geese.

A Thrilling Reminiscence of the Perils of Early Spring Hunting on the Platte.

Somewhere along in March, way back in 1888, I enjoyed one of my first goose hunts on the beloved and romantic Platte. John Hardin and George Tzschuck were with me, and that we had a great time, the fact that it happened nearly seventeen years ago, is all the guaranty anyone who was familiar with the Platte river shooting in those days will desire.

We were at Clark's, of course, and the historic old West hotel, still the stopping place of all sportsmen who visit the famous old town, was our headquarters, and Charlie Hoyt our guide.

The day after our arrival was not a typical goose day by any means, and old Charlie told us in the outset that we would not accomplish much. It was too calm, sunshiny and springlike for success in a shooting way, and we spent most of the day reconnoitering. During the morning few birds were seen, and these only 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 settled with querulous cackling along its thousand bars. We were on the south shore, below Crook's island, 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 and thousands of these magnificent birds. They took good care to keep out of reach of even Hardin's famous old 10-bore Parker, clanging out their wild signals, and by turns showing triangles of dusky brown and snowy white as they veered round, for up or down the river, or rose higher in their majestic voyage as they passed over us, unheeding Hoyt's most seductive call, but moved out over the broad river and settled serenely upon its long, glistening bars. Flock succeeded flock, until scores became hundreds and hundreds thousands, in the wondrous evening convocation on the flowing, ice-clogged river on the never-to-be-forgotten March evening of long ago.

Those were the days when goose shooting was goose shooting and the Platte the Platte, the days of which such old hunters as John Petty and Mr. Hoagland love to descant, love to swing round and go back to by memory's charming route. On two or three occasions old Charlie was successful in luring a single goose from the passing masses, 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 on down toward 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. But for the greater time our counterfeit stools and the almost constant calling of old Charlie failed to excite the least apparent attention from the steady and apparently endless chain of incoming geese, majestically, thrillingly, with that mighty wing-beat which 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.

It was long after dark when we again landed in the legendary old office of the West House, but a good substantial supper put us all in the most brotherly of humors, and the evening was spent discussing the wondrous flight we had seen, and what it probably meant for us in 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 shrieking and moaning of a wild northwester, as it tore transversely across that lonely little hamlet. 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 and smoking, and the strong rivalry which existed among us impelled me to attempt the decidedly hazardous feat 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 attempt. I prepared as quickly as possible for the venture, and in West's old single horse express, bundled up like an Eskimo, I was started for the river, which I reached in due time, hitched my rig in a wind-blow, and started for a distant towhead, with 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 into the river. The ice, as I had thought, was stout enough to have borne a four-horse team. Once upon the level ice the walking was not so bad and I rapidly drew near the towhead, 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 towhead a big flock of Canadas and speckled fronts arose from the off side of the Island, and with dissonant cries were soon lost sight of in the ragged scud to the leeward. On nearing the towhead, I saw a single Canada goose sitting on the ice, over the low will underbrush on the other side. I saw him lift up his black head, and I knew he was going, so I fired at about eighty yards, I should judge. He flew and fluttered down the wind, alighting at about every twenty-five yards or so, and dropping my sack of decoys, I followed him, until I dared go no further out on that trackless and storm-swept river.

Getting back to the towhead I realized for the first time, that it was growing colder. It was all I could do to regain the little tuft in the teeth of the wind. However, I was game, and after a laborious hour of it, had my decoys out and was snuggled down in the brush and weeds, and waited. I was facing the southwest, and for comfort, leaned back against stout willows and gave myself up to listening to the moaning of the wild winds and watching the sun climb down through the gray ocean of the heavens toward the rim of the western hills. It was still snowing thinly, and with some relief, I noticed that the storm was abating. All at once I was aroused from my 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 lessening gale. It was hardly necessary for me to send forth once or twice that familiar auh-unk-unk, long drawn out and quavering with welcome and restful content, with which a settled flock always greets newcomers.

The old white cravated pilot passed so close to my head that, it seemed, I could have struck him with my gun barrel, and more than a score of ebony heads, white breasts, broad wuffling wings and dusky feet passed just over me to the upper end of my line of decoys, and there 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 tumbled over just like puppets on a stage of Marionettes. With affrighted clamorings the balance of the big flock rose up into the storm, and I gave them my second barrel, and was overjoyed to see two more fold up those big gray sails and come kerchug down on the ice.

I reloaded and sat awhile long on the qui-vive, but darkness was creeping up from the east, and the weather being yet unsettled and decidedly frigid, I cut the cord from the decoy sack, tied the five big birds together by their necks, and hanging the loop on the barrel of my gun, started for the shore, leaving my decoys out where they stood. The wind was still strong and the cold more intense, while the pressure of three heavy geese against my back, and of the gun on my shoulders, added to the strain upon my lungs and heart, as I changed the burden from side to side and pressed on toward the shore, now only a darker line in the darkness and sleet. Once I heard the call of geese close at hand, and cleared my gun of its burden, but I saw only a shadow which swept swifter than the wind, between me and a tiny rift in the flying scud, and then like a sheeted ghost vanished.

Rod by rod and yard by yard I worked my way to the windward, sometimes stopping to draw free breath, and sometimes turning my back to the heavier squalls until they passed by, but at last I saw that I had reached the shore, and plunging thigh-deep through the heavy drifts I got inside the belt of forest and, for the time, was sheltered from the sweep of the freezing gale. How I made the last quarter of a mile I can hardly say. More than once I was afraid of swooning, for my throat and mouth were parched and dry, and my lungs seemed cramped with their heavy burden, but I staggered on and at last stood shivering and freezing in the windblow where I had left the wagon. But the horse was gone. I felt that it would be an idle waste of time to look for him, as he had likely taken the back track home, and knowing that it was an icy death to remain where I was much longer, I hung my geese in the willows, and started back to Clarke's afoot. I shall never attempt to portray the agonies of that journey home, but will say that I remember, like a horrible nightmare, how the old front door of the West hotel flew open in the dark, late that evening, and how Hardin's voice, called out loudly:

"We've got to find the d--d fool some way, and that's all there is to it. 'Spose he's stiff as a poker by this time."

And as I sit here writing these lines on this gray February day, I can still hear the wild clangor of that rising flock of geese, and while there is an exquisite charm in recalling my really terrible experience and glowing in the physical and mental strength and endurance which made it possible for me to live through that occasion, I would not take such a chance again for all the geese between Patagonia and the Arctic circle. Oh, yes, the recollection of that scene of storm and danger is now really inspiring, the frozen snow wreath a halo, and the five big Canadas I killed a greater pleasure than any hundred I ever killed before or since, but never again would I take such a chance.

Yes, we had a great shoot two days after that and killed more geese in a single morning and evening than you could kill today in a whole year!