Forty-eight hours prior to opening day of the Pennsylvania waterfowl season, an MRI confirmed the worst: My achilles tendon has completely torn. I listened carefully to the outlook—surgery, intense physical therapy and crutches for 4 to 6 months—none of which really bothered me. That is, until the doctor asked if I participate in any sports.
"No, but I hunt ducks," I said.
"Well, you won't be doing any hunting this year."
I felt my face grow flush and my palms and forehead burst into sweat. I had to talk myself out of getting sick right there on the floor. I'm sure the doctor had plenty of insightful things to say during the remainder of my visit, but I had tuned out.
No duck hunting for an entire season? I can barely make it a single summer without driving my wife crazy tinkering with decoys and trying, for once, to become a good caller. An entire season without duck hunting... an entire fall without mallards cupped over the spread. Without hearing the satisfying smack of a decoy hitting the water while wings whistle in the blackness overhead. No afternoons spent napping with a worn-out retriever's head nestled to my chest. Or with my stomach growling in anticipation of the duck skin crisping in the oven. There will be no need to clean my grandfather's shotgun, butter its walnut stock or shoulder it one last time before I case it. Forget eagerly anticipating a push of ducks ahead of every snow squall—all I'll look forward to is salting my sidewalk.
And, so, I left the doctor's office utterly dejected and pondering how I might somehow spend duck season in a state of quasi-hibernation. I had, however, underestimated an attribute of duck hunting that I'll always believe it has over deer hunting: the camaraderie of friends. Immediately my friend Tyler Coleman, president of the State College, PA, chapter of Delta Waterfowl, began texting.
"We will get you out there," he wrote. "We can carry all your stuff, set the decoys, retrieve the ducks. I'll find a wheelchair if I have to, I'm serious."
"I appreciate the thought," I said. "But it's my right leg. I can't even drive."
But Tyler wouldn't take no for an answer.
"We can pick you up and drive you home. I can't sleep before a hunt anyhow."
That offer—along with the prospect of duck hunting versus sitting around feeling sorry for myself—could not be refused. So, sorry doc, I'm sure you think it would benefit my health to sit this season out, but I disagree. Knowing I will hunt ducks this year—and that I'm friends with people who care enough to help—has raised my spirits. And, if pushing through physical therapy means more duck hunting, bring it on.
I write this on the eve of Pennsylvania's south zone opener. My friends arrive at 4:30 a.m. I will crutch to our favorite wood duck hole with a big smile on my face.