Paddling On Ice

This winter brought bitter cold weather to Dillon County. The weather was a frequent topic of complaint except from the duck hunters. With the swamps and ponds frozen along the Little Pee Dee River, the ducks spent their days in large groups concentrated in the river. This made their morning flights more predictable and they were also easier to find while paddling during the day. The only downside to the freeze was that the river was difficult to access in some areas because the banks were lined with ice.
Charlee Rhodes and I launched my canoe one Sunday afternoon to paddle the river and shoot ducks as they take flight ahead of us. This method of hunting is called jump shooting. The first obstacle that we faced was that the entire access at Moccasin Bluff was frozen solid. We paddled the boat into the ice crunching it under the bow until we came to a stop. The ice didn’t allow the paddles to penetrate and we resorted to beating the ice to make our path. I realized that this wouldn’t work either when the blade of my paddle split. We sat in the canoe locked in the ice like as Earnest Shackelton put it, “Like an almond in a chocolate bar.” I thought about how dumb it was to launch on a slough of slow current off the main river. We considered going backwards to land until we realized that we could drag the canoe across the island to the river on the other side. We could not paddle so I put one foot on the ice and used that foot to slide the canoe across the ice. The ice gave only once and my foot was wet but we reached the island and drug the boat through the woods.
Reaching the river on the other side, I sat in the front with the gun and Charlee paddled. We worked our way down river and she practiced the J-stroke. Paddling with the J-stroke helps you to make a turn without having to switch sides and loose speed. When paddling alone, you can point the bow in the right direction but the boat is no longer moving forward but sideways leading to a noisy crash into the overhanging branches on the bank. Ducks are very attentive and will fly away if they are suspicious of anything unnatural. The J-stroke allows you to keep in control on the turn and you don’t have to paddle on both sides of the canoe.
Both of our paddles were broken and Charlee couldn’t guide the boat as well as if she had a whole paddle. We were both paddling as we came around a bend and a flock of ducks took off. I dropped my paddle and scrambled for the gun but missed when I fired. My paddle was floating nearby and I couldn’t warm my hands after picking it up.
We moved along down stream and I lifted the gun as we rounded a turn. Three ducks took off and I shot one down. There are so many ways to lose a duck after it is hit and so we paddled full speed to find it. The male wood duck was caught on a limb in the water and we put it in the boat. We soon jumped another flock of ducks and I shot the hen. The hen drifted to the ice and stopped. As we approached the duck, a flock of ducks flew from the trees right past the boat. It would have been a perfect opportunity if only I was ready.
We had our second duck in the boat and Charlee wanted to shoot one. We couldn’t get the boat to land because of the ice so we carefully swapped seats while floating. Charlee fired on a few ducks which narrowly escaped before we came up on an obstacle. A tree lay across the river and ice had formed across the river leading up to the tree. We broke a path to the tree and pulled the boat over. The river was frozen on the other side as well and we continued to break ice paddling the canoe backwards and ramming it forward into the ice. This method became hopeless because the sun was setting and we still had a lot of ice to break so we busted a path to land. The ground was covered in snow and there was no path through the trees and branches. Other people have pulled heavier boats through worse obstacles so we got to work. An unseen problem was that what we believed to be land was actually ice over the swamp. The ice broke and our feet were soaked. We spent the rest of the portage standing on tree branches.
The canoe was finally at the river sitting on the ice as we boarded. Our weight did not crack the ice and neither could our paddles. It was a pathetic sight to see a canoe sitting on the ice unable to move forward. The plan was abandoned and we moved downstream to find a better access.
Back on the river and with one duck left to kill, we paddled on past ice and fallen trees into open water. Ducks took flight down stream and I fired three shots. It could have been our last chance at getting our limit today and a duck hit the water. We raced to the scene and the duck was gone. We searched the water and there was no sign but feathers. “There!” Charlee shouted after spotting the duck on land. I couldn’t see it and she tried to give a direction from the spinning boat. “Ten o’clock! No, eleven, I mean nine!” I spotted the male woodduck on land and we had our limit.
We tried to continue downstream but the entire river was frozen across and we did not care to fight that battle any more. We moved back up river until we found an access point at which a friend could reach us. Fighting the ice and seeing the snow on the river was an adventure and the limit of ducks made it a victory. We couldn’t feel our hands or faces and Charlee said that she had a great time up to the last forty minutes.