Since he could walk, Owen has been drawn to birds. Whether he was chasing birds on the beach, watching them through binoculars and strategizing how to hunt them or raising them, Owen’s life has always revolved around birds.
When I picked him up after the second day of three-year-old preschool, he said, “Ok, I’m good. I’ve learned all I need to know. I have hunting and farming to do, I don’t have time for this.”
I knew instantly his academic career was going to be a tedious one.
At 8 years old, he was legal to hunt in Michigan. He wanted to spend every free moment waterfowl hunting. This posed a problem in a house of avid whitetail archery hunters. We did not waterfowl hunt, or know much about it. Not to mention, Michigan archery season and waterfowl season run simultaneously in the fall.
Every day I would pick Owen up from school and ask, “Ducks or bucks?”
Every day his answer was the same, “Ducks!”
Although I enjoy every moment spent hunting with him, I’ll admit, it was painful in the beginning. The worst was receiving texts from my trail camera. Shooter bucks were under our stands a mile away and we were hunting waterfowl.
Owen would always say, “Mom, the wind isn’t right for that spot tonight. If we were there, those bucks would have winded us on the way in and gone the other direction.”
I knew sometimes he was right, but other times he only said it to ease my anguish.
His second grade teacher wrote, “Owen is excellent with reading comprehension, when it has to do with the outdoors.” It was no surprise to me that other subjects never did peak his interest.
At the age of nine, Owen bagged his first buck with a vertical bow and I selfishly hoped it would sway him toward more archery hunting. Although it gave him a great appreciation for the difficulty of archery hunting and shifted his weapon of choice from a firearm to a bow when deer hunting, waterfowl remained number one.
My husband and I have been whitetail hunting in Manitoba since 2009 when he accidentally bought a waterfowl hunt at an auction. That’s how we met Kris and Nance Wujcik of Michitoba Outfitting. Kris coincidentally grew up in Michigan so they have been to our home many times while visiting family in the state.
Owen has seen our photos and heard the stories of the massive flocks of waterfowl we have encountered in Manitoba while whitetail hunting. He longed to hunt with Kris at Michitoba Outfitting and shoot a green head or anything other than a wood duck. Kris began telling Owen when he was nine that, at the age of twelve, he would be legal to hunt waterfowl in Manitoba.
Three years of waiting is a very long time for a child with a one-track mind.
In 2016, Owen turned 12 and the wait was over.
We landed in Winnipeg late in the evening and did not arrive at camp until the wee hours of the morning. We were not the first ones there, as they have invited some other longtime client-friends to join them also for what they are anticipating will be the last week of the season.
At 5 a.m., Kris knocks at our door. “You huntin’?”
“No, we’re going to sleep in,” my husband replies.
I get up to see if Owen wants to hunt or sleep. As I enter his room I find him already awake and dressed. I see he has made a new friend, Guinness, Kris and Nance’s black lab.
“You going out?” I ask.
“Oh Yeah!” he says, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this!”
I get dressed, kiss my husband on the head, grab my video camera and quietly close the bedroom door. The hunting party has started to assemble around the dining table. Cole, a thirty-year-old local who guides for Michitoba Outfitting, walks through the door and it is time to load up.
Guinness knows we are going hunting. I have never seen a dog so excited. As soon as the truck door opens, the adrenaline kicks in. He is on a dead run for the backseat. He enters though the open door, not very gracefully, but he is in. He vibrates all the way to the field. I’m not sure who is more excited, Guinness or Owen.
The fields are wet in the low-lying areas and I am sure the decoy trailer is going to get stuck. Kris rolls up the window Guinness has been sticking his head out of to avoid a mud bath. The truck hammers though the mud pit, twisting and sliding, spinning and throwing mud. We make it out of the mud and across the field to the slew.
“That was awesome!” says Owen, smiling wide.
We climb down from our mud-covered chariot and begin to set the spread. I place my lay-out blind behind Owen’s to have the best vantage point for filming. Ducks are flying early as we can hear them overhead before daylight. When the decoys are set, we climbed into our lay-outs to wait for shooting light.
“Let the rookie have the singles,” Kris says.
As the pink morning sun rises, ducks began to filter by a couple at a time. Then, from Owen’s blind, I hear, “Oh yeah, look at, to the right. Oh geeze!” A flock of a couple dozen mallards is headed into the decoys.
“Get ready,” Kris says in a low tone.
The ducks bank and turn straight toward Owen. They are cupping up to land only a few yards in front of the blinds.
“Kill ’em!” Kris barks to the boys with the guns.
A row of barrels emerges from their concealment. Shots ring out. Fire breaching the end of the barrels can be seen in the low morning light and the smell of burned gun powder fills the air. Before the smoke clears Guinness is retrieving the mess of green heads lying about.
“What’d ya think of that O?” asks Kris.
“That was awesome!” Owen replies.
From my seat behind him I can only see his face when he turns his head but I can tell by the depth of the dimple on his left cheek that he is grinning from ear to ear. He is in his element. Hunting with the boys from Michitoba Outfitting is all he imagined it would be and more. Kris rises from his blind to direct his canine companion. Owen joins him to watch them work.
Between flocks, Rob, an Arkansas waterfowl guide in his fifties, teaches Owen to call chickens on his duck call. Rob has a strong southern draw and sometimes I’m not sure he is speaking English but, regardless of dialect, he and Owen seem to be speaking the same language.
Back in Michigan, Owen is the boss. I listen to him because he possesses much more knowledge about waterfowl hunting than I, but here he is the student and he is eager to take it all in. Even the things that are not likely to increase his odds of bringing in ducks and geese, like calling chickens.
The boy who once chased birds on the beach is now on the world’s largest waterfowl stage. He is instantly at home here and after the first day, I never hear anybody mention leaving the singles for the rookie again. He does not have the experience that the more seasoned hunters possess, but he is holding his own with his stock shortened, custom painted, third-hand, semi-automatic Benelli Super 90, 12 gauge. Owen is present on every waterfowl hunting excursion that week. After the hunts, he and I volunteer to breast the ducks and geese so he can set aside his favorite specimens for the taxidermist.
He tells me in great detail about what was happening during each volley. I am shocked to realize how focused he is with all the shooting and birds flying. He is recognizing ducks he has never seen before on approach based on size, look, wing sounds and vocalizations. He knows each hunter’s firearm and how many rounds each gun holds. Not only that, but he knows how many shots come from each gun during every volley. How he can keep track of that when he is trying to identify, aim and shoot is beyond me.
Between hunts Kris, Rob and Cole sit around the table and discuss guiding with Owen. He knows there will be a position for him at Michitoba Outfitting in 2022 if he chooses to guide when he is 18. There, he is not a 12-year-old, he is just one of the guys. He dreams about guiding with the big boys and I have no doubt that one day he will. I see his days in Manitoba as training as much as hunting because I know how driven he is when it comes to waterfowl.
“Watch out for the burs,” Owen says, as he climbs into a ditch on an evening goose hunt.
“Those a’ cacaburs,” says Rob in his southern accent.
“Cacaburs?” I ask. “Is that like a cocklebur?”
“Yeah, tha’s what I said, ‘cacaburs.’”
“You’re in Manitoba now, that’s burdock,” Kris chimes in.
Although they cannot agree on what to call a bur, when the geese start flying, once again they are all on the same page.
On our last morning, after the other hunters have left for home, Kris takes Owen out to hunt for ducks Owen has never hunted before. It is certainly a highlight for all of us. Owen bags his first green wing teal, northern shoveler and American wigeon that morning, all of which make the cut for the taxidermist. Owen has many others on his bucket list, but they will have to wait until next year. It is time to head for home.
As we pull out down the long gravel road, overlooking a pond filled with thousands of birds, Owen is clearly troubled.
“I don’t want to leave,” he says.
He watches a flock of Canada geese rise out of the water.
“I hope we get to hunt with Rob again next year,” he adds.
The next day, as I drive him to school back in Michigan, he looks out over an 80-acre field with the sun coming up at the far end. “I feel like I’m supposed to be out there, laying in that field, with Kris and Guinness on one side and Cole on the other. I keep looking up expecting to see huge flocks of birds but there aren’t any,” he says.
My husband and I understand completely how Owen feels. Each time we leave Manitoba, we leave a piece of ourselves behind. We will be back for the world class hunting, the beautiful sights and the fabulous food, but most of all we will be back for the amazing people.
Whether or not they realize it, the gentlemen who Owen spent the week with last fall are not just his hunting guides. They are his teachers, peers, mentors and friends. Owen thought he was going to Manitoba to shoot ducks and geese. He thought he was getting out of his lessons for the week, but some of the greatest lessons cannot be taught in a classroom. Love for the outdoors, respect for nature, passion for conserving its resources, these can only be gained by spending time in the out of doors. What Owen got was a lesson in life and, for the first time, ever he cannot wait for the next class.– Hillary Kigar