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First printed in
The Morning News
of Northwest Arkansas
Mountain Morning Mallards Magical

It was always the beauty.

For me and many people with whom I have spent time outdoors, the beauty, the magical beauty of nature, is always the thing that draws us.

Hoping to experience the kind of beautiful magical morning I remember from past decades, I was walking a snowy ridge line covered with an inch of wet snow. The valley 100 feet lower and 100 yards to my northwest was split by a springfed mountain stream, the sort of waterway associated with ultralight tackle and smallmouth bass that take nearly a decade to grow to a foot in length.

In winter, such places are the secret haunts of small flocks of mallards that come as if by magic to feed on acorns washed to the shore by winter rains and covered on such mornings by light snow, except in the clear water itself, where they wash into the eddies and provide breakfast at dawn for birds whose ancestors must have been wintering in the same highlands long before European conquerors braved the Atlantic to take such places from the native people.

The mallards themselves are no more beautiful than their cousins that winter in fields and patches of flooded timber around the winding bayous near such places as Lodge Corner or Grady.

There is something extra precious, however, about finding them there in the high country where I first saw them 30 years ago.

Yes, they are Arkansas mallards but not Arkansas County mallards. They likely never were as numerous as the lowland flocks. The habitat on which their ancestors' migratory instincts imprinted was never as secure as the big river bottoms and prairie ponds of the east.

It was always easy to get close to a duck that had only a small stream to visit in the worst of winter when most bodies of water were solidly sealed by layers of ice.

Even so, wintering waterfowl in all parts of Arkansas were relatively safe from overhunting before Europeans brought firearms.

But it was always the beauty.

A modern shotgun allows waterfowl hunters to harvest birds at reasonably long range, in many cases 50 yards or further. And ducks will rest and feed on even the ugliest of waterholes, including sewage pits.

But the beauty of mallards setting their wings and sailing through the branches of oaks, hickories, bois d'arcs and such and then gliding onto the surface of a mountain stream is the thing that compels me to seek such spots on winter mornings when even my most powerful Labrador retriever would content himself with a quick turn about the yard and a fast return to the comfort of a living-room chair to listen to the wind bending branches against the window screens and to dream of hunting with men whose shots never miss and ducks that always fall in sight and never dive or climb into hollow trees.

On the most recent morning I experienced all this, I had stayed awake all night after a late-evening nap that followed a softball game and a hot bath. Rain blowing against the windows gently awakened me from my nap. Rich dark coffee intensified my awareness of the extraordinary night when the weather's changing was the only thing that really mattered despite the best efforts of CNN's news team to convince me otherwise. The snow had been predicted, and I knew the prediction had been true when the sounds of the rain ended. I had gone outdoors with my dogs only briefly during the rain, waiting up with them sleeping nearby until the silence of the snow made me realize the magic time had come.

After only a half mile of walking with my Lab Beowulf at my side, still a long way from our dreamed-of rendezvous with what turned out to be only nine mallards, three hens and five drakes, I was already questioning the logic of challenging such harsh conditions.

The obvious question is why would a person leave a warm house or vehicle to walk in a trackless wilderness where no other person would be likely to find him in case of accident?

A more basic question is why did human beings long ago begin to selct their mates with an eye toward eliminating the natural fur coats that protected our ancestors? Why did we become dependent on clothing, houses and fireplaces when our ancestors once must have been able to snuggle under the thick branches of a cedar tree or back into a cave and defy the worst winter could do?

My winter clothing is excellent, although far from the most expensive available today. I depend on wool sweaters and socks, leather boots, neoprene waders, nylon raingear and items made of other natural and manmade substances to make me tough enough to go where my ancestors must have been able to go wearing only the fur coats that grew from their own skin.

Just as I was thinking how great it would be to have my own fur coat, my reverie was broken by my dog suddenly turning to scratch and chew his back. Obviously, our ancestors shed their natural coats in order to shed their fleas. Beowulf, however, tells me he's willing to put up with a few parasites in order to be tough enough to hit the cold water without a whimper

It's all part of the beauty.


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Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, AR © 2003, 2004, 2005

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