On the Road with Waterfowl (Pet ducks and a goose)

Yesterday Augie rode passenger side in a laundry basket in my lap as Phout drove us to Big R, so King Augie could oversee the selection of layer pellets for his flock. It was his second trip back to Big R, the place where we bought him when he was about two days old. Augie poked his head through the top of the laundry basket, which is made from flexible plastic and I will refer to it as his travel basket from now on, as I meandered toward the poultry food aisle. He didn't struggle to get out--just sat calmly, once in a while making eye contact with me and speaking in his hoarse, but calm, drake voice.
First let me say that this was definitely not Augie March's first car ride. Since he fit in my hand he has accompanied me, though less often lately, on both short and long trips in the vehicle. In the beginning I kept him in a black felt nap sack with a drawstring at the top. It was both warm and dark--something I could easily tuck inside my jacket for it was still early March when he was hatched and too cold for him to be exposed to the elements as we ran errands. His tiny poops were still at that stage where they were easy to deal with: simply let them dry and dump the bag in a trash container. Tink! Tink!

I recall being in the waiting room of a car stereo merchant, Augie tucked away in his drawstring nap sack, the only other patron being a woman with a toy dog. She struck up a conversation with me right away. For those months when he accompanied me everywhere, his presence was an ice breaker. People were amazed when they'd stare at the nap sack, probably wondering what was inside, only to see a duckling poke his head out. They'd often say they expected a puppy or a kitten. But a duck? No one expected a duck.

On a whim, in early April, I packed Ming, Clyde, and Lucy (2 runner ducks and a goose) into a large dog crate, and Augie (the King Cayuga himself) in his periwinkle travel basket, and headed to Kalispell, Montana to spend a week with my cousin Shellie. (As a side note I also had two Rottweilers in the very back of my vehicle.)

So, imagine, just me, two Rottweilers, a gosling, and three ducklings in a Mazda Tribute. I stopped at a rest stop east of Fourth of July Pass, refilled the animals' water, let the dogs out to pee, and it was back on the road again. Dusk crept up as we drove through Paradise and I pulled into a turn-off about five miles past Hot Springs and watched the sunset. When I finally arrived at Shellie's, it was late, and quite a chore settling all of my companions into one room together for the night (the dogs and waterfowl do not get along). And, yes, it does become smelly after several hours on the road with a small flock of waterfowl. I used wee pads, meant for puppies, and changed them frequently.

In the morning my cousin Shellie awoke to the pitter-patter of duck-/gosling feet and Lucy's "Vee-vee-vee!" and Ming, Clyde, and Augie's "Ai! Ai! Ai! Ai!" whenever I walked out of sight. The next week was spent juggling waterfowl and dogs--taking Newman and Betti for walks and then letting the waterfowl out into the yard where I could supervise them closely as I made earrings. They enjoyed being near the lounge chairs and often rested there, next to me, never straying far. Several hawks circled overhead on many occasions, which is why I never left them alone--not even to run into the house for a glass of water. Each time I went in, I put them all into their crates. (I had to run to PetCo and get a small carrier with a locking door for Augie, since I still kept him separate from Ming and Clyde when they were enclosed.)

I also discovered, during this retreat, that Augie wants whatever I have, beginning, to my surprise, with my jewelry-making tools. While sitting on the grass, bending wire, Augie would sneak up and snatch whatever he could find: scissors, wire cutters, bags of feathers, beads, etc. I got up and down enough to have completed a set of aerobics by the time I was finished with my task. Each time he approached I thought he surely wouldn't be able to grab anything 'from that distance' or 'from that position', but he'd snatch and run. I found it entertaining, but quickly had to secure my beads and small pieces of wire so that he could not injure himself.

About halfway through the week, I loaded the dogs and waterfowl into the Mazda again and set out for Glacier National Park (about forty five minutes from Shellie's). The park was closed right after the lodge, but I wanted to take photos along the shore of Lake McDonald. At one point I pulled up in the parking lot in front of the dock in Apgar Village and took Augie out of his travel basket. I placed him on the ground and proceeded to walk to the beach. Augie waddled close behind. That's when a park ranger approached in his truck, rolled down the window, and said, "What are you planning to do with that duck?"

"I'm taking him down to the lake to see if he'd like to swim," I said. "But it might be too cold for him."

"For a duck?" the ranger said.

"He's a city duck who's not used to the cold."

I was thinking during this conversation that the ranger thought I was going to 'set him free' or something, but I tend to remain cool and collected during most confrontations, so Augie and I kept walking slowly in the direction we were headed.

"Won't he fly away," the ranger said.

"No," I said.

"Why? Are his wings clipped?"

"No. He's a domestic duck. His breed is too heavy to fly."

(I'm unable to comment about the ranger--what he looked like, except that he was male--because I noticed his truck more than I noticed him. I tend to do this--notice objects more than people.)

"What kind of duck is he?"

"He's a Cayuga created in upstate New York, named after the Native American tribe."

"Well, have a nice day!"

And that was it. The ranger drove away, but another vehicle had pulled up, a mini van, with a woman inside. She sat there, probably watching us. Perhaps it was the most fascinating thing she'd seen that day, besides the backdrop of Lake McDonald. Somewhere deep inside I felt a part of the lake, the land that is known as Glacier National Park, because all the while, in my mind, I was imagining the fire of 1929 when my Grandma Betty was twelve years old and they all went out on the dock to avoid the flames. I'm sure it wasn't the same dock, but it is the same lake, though my grandmother and all of those ancestors have passed away now. I knew the ranger wouldn't be asking me about my duck if it were the 1920s during the time my grandma frolicked in the icy cold water, when my great-granddad Mart was a well-known stone mason and friend of Eddie Brewster and cowboy artists Bug (Ace) Powell, and Charlie Russell. My family was here before Glacier National Park existed, before President Taft signed a bill to declare it a National Park in 1910. Mart lived on the Blackfeet Reservation and, later, my grandma attended school there, on the east side of the mountains, in Browning--which is still the Blackfeet Reservation today.

The day was cool enough for a black Gogol Bordello hoodie as I neared the shore where pebble-flecked sand crunched beneath my feet and the clear lapping water always causes me to wonder why my family ever moved away (though our family owns a cabin right next to the ranger cabin, nestled in the woods directly across from Apgar Village--but I don't know that side of the family well and am not privy to spend the night there). Augie approached the water, making satisfied sounds, and began dabbling. 

The rocks in Lake McDonald are amazing, though I doubt Augie gave it much thought, for the area was once beneath a vast and deep ocean--there are still fossil sea creatures found at the tops of the mountains within the park. 

Our excursion was short-lived, however, as a flock of wild waterfowl took off from a nearby beach which Augie reacted to by raising the feathers on top of his head, letting out a long, hoarse "Mwe-eck!" and running toward the Mazda in the parking lot. This time I followed him. He became spooked by everything and ducked quickly beneath the car as a crow flew overhead. When I opened the passenger door, Augie came out from hiding and waited for me to pick him up and put him in his travel basket. I was surprised at how quickly Augie retreated when he became nervous, how he knew exactly where the car was parked, and flattered that he sought safety in my company.

After this I drove to nearby Lake Five, outside of West Glacier (Belton as it was called in my grandparent's day), to see Lake Five, featured in many childhood stories my grandma told, for the first time. It was still cold with ice on the lake in places. Ducks were floating here and there. I wondered what it was like for my grandma when she was a teenager, splashing off the dock on summer nights. I imagined I could almost hear the shouts, echoes in the dark, of those long-ago voices, reactions to cold water on bare flesh, perhaps after a sip or two of moonshine.

I looked over and there was Augie and he said, "Mweck! Mweck!" in his juvenile drake's voice. My ancestors probably never imagined I'd be here, thinking of them, attempting to reconstruct some of their living faces from eighty to one hundred year old photographs, imagine their voices, the splashing sounds their bodies made in such a distant past. But I still wondered if they ever thought of the idea of me, so far in the future, looking out across their playground, yearning for what they had. I will never know. There is a stillness that accompanies such excursions as this one. Me, alone, except for my animal companions, looking across a century that, perhaps, some wealthy tourists have now laid claim to with their vacation homes.

On that day I shared my experience, most closely, with Augie March who would, yet unknown, become the King of Doodles. There we were, on the road, like a traveling circus. People would think we were nuts. Wait, people would think I was nuts. After all, what does a duck have to do with making such decisions? Ducks don't pack up the car and drive hundreds of miles. 

I don't sit around and think of this experience often. It's not sentimental to me, but I am not a sentimental person most of the time. I suppose in the future it will mean something to me that Augie March was there, in the front seat, talking to me as I had intimate thoughts about the people who are the reason I exist. Most people don't experience this with a duck, much less a car filled with waterfowl and Rottweilers, both. But I did.

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