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PAUL SMITH: Stay dry and carry an axe

Chasing these critters around the woods in cold weather can certainly challenge your outdoor survival skills.
Chasing these critters around the woods in cold weather can certainly challenge your outdoor survival skills. - Paul Smith

Wow, it’s so warm and unseasonable for Nov. 13. It feels like a cool and rainy day in July, I suppose not even that cool by Avalon Peninsula July standards.

But balmy conditions, 16 degrees, won’t last for very long.

By daybreak tomorrow morning the temperature will have dropped below freezing. That’s amazing I think. And dangerous for folks in the woods, because it’s that sort of huge insane temperature swing that can really get you into some serious trouble.

I remember a duck hunt 40 years ago nearly to the day, mid-November, a great time for hunting bigger ponds in the backcountry. Back then black ducks would congregate in very large groups as ice over approached in late autumn. Now they hang out in our saltwater bays and estuaries. In the 1970s ducks weren’t safe around the shores of Spaniard’s Bay or elsewhere I suspect, because hunters would shoot at them.

It was a normal thing in those days. People would hunt from the beaches and headlands around communities. I’m not sure if the practice was legal or not, but for sure nowadays there is no discharging of firearms permitted within municipal boundaries.

So the ducks are safe and no longer frequent Matty’s Pond in November for refuge. I have looked.

So back in 1979, Boyd Winsor, Chris Coombs, and myself headed into Matty’s Pond where we were darn sure of seeing a big company of ducks. We left my 1977 Ford F100 at the base of Marky’s Hill and headed in country around Island Pond and Rocky Pond. Some of you will have no trouble figuring out where exactly I’m talking about. It would take us about three hours to reach our destination and duck hunting heaven. It began to rain about an hour in.

On went the heavy, non-breathable Ranger Tuff pants and bibs. Do you remember that rain gear? It was great for a fishing boat but horrible for woods travel. But that’s all we had.

This time of year the temperature can plummet downwards very fast.
This time of year the temperature can plummet downwards very fast.

Anyway, by the time we got to Matty’s Pond we were all soaked in sweat. Gore-Tex is a wonderful thing.

But we didn’t mind. We were young and tough and the ducks were there, about 100 or so swimming about in the middle of the pond. It was an amazing sight. So we lay in wait for a shot. It stopped raining and the temperature was quite warm, not unlike today, so we took off our rain gear to let ourselves air dry. The wind felt just grand.

Life was good.

A group of 20 or so ducks broke off from the main group and swam in toward a point of land to the west of our blind. They began feeding and dabbling about amongst small rocks that protruded trough the relatively calm surface of the pond. There wasn’t much wind.

Chris and I decided to try and creep out on the point for a shot.  Between the birds and us was a wet marshy area that we would have to crawl through. I should have put my Ranger Tuff suit back on. I got soaked totally to the skin. Chris with great ingenuity somehow stayed reasonably dry.

For our effort we shot five black ducks and were quite thrilled.

The light wind was blowing offshore so we would have to walk around to the opposite side of the pond to pick up our birds.

But first I decided to swim out and fetch a duck retriever style that was hung up on a couple of those rocks I mentioned earlier. I stripped down to my underwear and swam out in the pond.

The water wasn’t that cold so it was no big deal. I had done this dog act quite a few times before, being young and tough, remember. That mission accomplished and one duck in the pack, Chris and I headed around the pond on the couple of mile hike that would hopefully retrieve the remaining four ducks. Boyd stayed in the blind to watch out for more incoming birds. Chris and I returned with just three ducks, one still missing. None of us were happy about that.

Boyd decided to go have a look. Chris and I would wait for him in the blind. Hopefully he would get back in time for us to make the trek to the truck before darkness set in.

As Chris and I sat in the blind, 50 or more ducks returned to the pond. The excitement and anticipation of more powder burn kept us warm I suppose, but we could not help but feel the air temperature dropping.

It was getting cold very fast. I suppose like tonight, with an expected drop of 17 or 18 degrees. I was damp, cold to the bone, and quite tired. I forgot about being young and tough. But we had an axe and kindled a small fire in the duck blind so we could stay warm while waiting for Boyd to return. He finally did, and I honestly don’t remember if he found the duck or not. I just wanted to head for home. My clothes were still wet and in spite of the fire I was shivering bloody cold. It would not be a happy walk, with at least the last hour in stone pitch darkness, and lots of tangly spruce.

Nowadays there’s great rainwear on the market for hunters.
Nowadays there’s great rainwear on the market for hunters.

What I remember most about the walk out was how my muscles began to cramp up sporadically.

I have since learned how that is an early indication of hypothermia, or maybe it was a degree dehydration. I don’t know, but I do know I felt really miserable from the cold. It was now below zero and I was wet. I could actually feel my clothes stiffen and begin to freeze.

But we made it fine to the truck and I cranked the heater of that old Ford to full blast. After I got home to a feed of my mother’s baked beans all was well with the world again.

So what’s the takeaway from this experience?

Nowadays, I would never put myself in that sort of risky situation. Hopefully I’m older and a little wiser, although Goldie might debate that point.

Seriously, I should have taken the time to dry my wet clothes over a fire. I did it many times in subsequent years. And I should have never gotten soaking wet in the first place. Getting wet this time of year can be very risky. The temperature can drop like a bomb and your core can cool before you realize what is happening. Beware and stay dry. Also there’s much better raingear available these days.

No more Ranger Tuff for me.

Most importantly, never go into the woods without the means to get a fire going.
Most importantly, never go into the woods without the means to get a fire going.

And for heaven’s sake, never go in the woods without the means to kindle a fire. Always carry an axe or hatchet. It’s not easy to keep a fire going, or split wood with a knife. An axe can save your life. Winter is coming and the weather is turning cold fast.

By the way, I’ve been obsessing over axes of late. I watched a full hour video today on vintage axes and their maintenance.

Stay tuned for more on my favourite wood chopping implements.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at  or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock.


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