8336363196_79c0abe63b_zPhoto courtesy of JR Martin via Flickr

I pulled myself along, belly-crawling across the thin ice that capped most of the Mississippi River. My hands were so frozen I hadn’t had feeling for over an hour. I crawled forward, a little uneasy about the thin ice beneath me. The wind howled down the river valley and burned my face. Yet somehow I was having one of the most fun and memorable days of my life.

There are many factors that make hunting great, but it is the challenge that drives many. The challenges vary greatly: weather extremes, the physical demands, outsmarting the animals, and even fighting off boredom. For many of us, our lives have become so sedentary and scheduled. Rarely do we experience real physical and mental challenges. Although our work and family lives can have plenty of stress, we’ve adapted to it so that we view it as daily life rather than the challenge that it is. Many of us choose to challenge ourselves by rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and all sorts of activities that we probably shouldn’t be doing. Yet we do them anyways just to see if we’re up to the challenge.

Certainly I enjoy a nice relaxing hunt on a calm day without exerting too much effort. But the hunts I truly enjoy and remember are the ones where it’s borderline insane to be out there in the first place. This is how I found myself crawling across the ice ten years ago. It was the last day of Wisconsin’s duck season. The entire river was frozen over except for tiny pools that were fed by streams which wind down the valleys into the river. I knew the last remaining ducks would be attracted to this open water.  I’m sure the story has been exaggerated in my mind, but I recall the actual temperature at -21°F and the wind chill at -35°F with winds blowing around 30mph. I bundled up in every bit of clothing I could fit under my waders and headed to the river. I was to meet a friend and walk in together. He met me at the parking spot and said, “Sorry man, but I ain’t going out in this.” Suit yourself, I’m going!

I threw two decoys into the small pool of open water and waited. Soon I had small flocks of mallards circling and was able to shoot a couple. I waded into the pool to retrieve my ducks but when I got back to land I realized my waders were now freezing solid. So I kept my legs moving to avoid freezing up and continued hunting. After an hour or so the cold was really starting to bite into me. I noticed my hands didn’t feel cold, but that was because they were numb. Just as I was ready to call it a day, one last mallard came sailing down to my decoys. I raised my gun, fired, and hit!

I watched in disbelief as the wind caught his wings and launched him out over the ice. Upon landing, he slid like a hockey puck and came to rest 40 yards out on the ice.

Now comes the part that would make my wife and mother want to slap me. There was no way I leaving that duck out there. So like any completely irrational person, I started crawling across the ice. I decided it was best to crawl to distribute my weight; safety first right? I got my duck and made it back to the truck when it hit me: “That was about the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” I was already frozen to the bone and had I fallen through the ice, no one would have known. As I mentioned in an earlier story, a hunter’s determination will always trump intelligent thought.

I later came to find out my hands were frostbitten, which has given me trouble ever since. But if I could go back and do it again I would—just with thicker gloves!

I live for those days—the chance to hunt when most wouldn’t dare. A chance to prove that you’re able to block out mental and physical discomfort in pursuit of a goal. Sometimes what makes a hunt successful is the fact that you even went out and tried. There is something primal about it. You could stay home where it’s safe and comfortable, but that just wouldn’t be any fun now, would it? So the next time you see a hunter heading out into a blizzard, a thunderstorm, or 100 degree heat, don’t pity them or call them insane. They just want to know if they’re up to the challenge.