Last Friday evening, our gang of old pals gathered at the cabin at Swan Lake to spend the opening weekend of waterfowl season together, just as we have for the last four decades.

Long ago, we started calling this annual event Goose Camp. In the beginning, we were all pretty serious about the hunting side of things, and the photographic record of those days is not unlike the sepia-toned photos of market hunters a hundred years back, with rough-looking, bearded men standing shoulder to shoulder with stringers of ducks and geese held out proudly to the camera. Back then, the ducks and geese that frequented the sloughs and wetlands near Swan Lake had something to fear from us.

Not so much any longer. Some of us still go through the motions of building blinds and setting out decoys, and we do spend some time hunkering in those blinds watching and waiting for the birds to come. But we also spend time walking in the woods with the dogs in search of ruffed grouse, fishing for pike, playing cribbage in the warm kitchen back at the cabin, and just enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company.

The weekend starts with a big dinner at the cabin where we crowd in around the table and eat and drink too much while we catch up on each other’s lives and retell the stories we have been telling each other and laughing at since we fell in together so long ago.

On Friday, after we had raised our glasses in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Goose Camp and were sighing with satisfaction at the last bites of Erwin’s famous huckleberry pie, I decided it was time to make an unhappy announcement, so I called for order.

“Boys, I have some bad news. The Sportspal is gone. Vanished. McMurphy and I went over to the slough this afternoon before you got here. We planned to put out a few decoys and set up a couple of blinds for the morning. When I went to retrieve the Sportspal from its hiding place, it wasn’t there,” I announced.

There were murmurs of disbelief and groans of dismay, but then Gimpy piped up: “It can’t be gone. I was the last one to use it, and I know exactly where it is. I’ll go over and find it in the morning.”

I wanted to believe him, but I had my doubts.

The Sportspal is a unique aluminum canoe, painted a birchbarky sort of camouflage that makes it blend in with the dried-out native vegetation in the fall. My father, who believed as I do that there is no such thing as too many floatable craft, bought the canoe sometime in the late 60s for use at the cabin. It really is called a Sportspal. That’s its brand name. You can Google it and see exactly what they look like. It is an odd canoe because of its décor, and the black foam bumper that once ran the length of the boat along its rail, and the black foam lining of the entire canoe that makes it virtually unsinkable.

In our first years at Goose Camp, each opening day we would drag the Sportspal, filled to the gunnels with decoys, across the lake and then through the woods and brush to our secret slough. Once there, we would use the canoe to distribute and later collect the decoys.

After we discovered that our slough had become overrun with northern pike, we ended up leaving the canoe hidden in the brush at the slough so that it would be there whenever we wanted to use it for fishing. We had hidden it there in the brush for at least twenty years now. Over time, it got pretty well beat up. A tree fell on it one winter and reshaped the light aluminum, but it was still floatable last year when I retrieved it to put out decoys, and Gabby spent several hours in it pike fishing before he stashing it for another year.

What I’m saying is, that Sportspal had a history.

The next morning, after greeting our 40th opening day dawn in the Swan Valley from the tall grass surrounding the slough, four of us waited for Gabby to arrive and undertake  his own  search for the Sportspal. Slats, McMurphy, Lance, and I all began speculating about what could have happened to the Sportspal.

“Well, it couldn’t have just floated away in high water. It was too far back in the brush for that. Someone must have taken it,” McMurphy said.

“Who would do that? Who would want it? And how would they have found it? Nobody comes in here and sneaks around in these woods looking for a canoe to steal,” Slats responded.

“Unless they just stumbled on it, used it themselves, then stashed it somewhere else,” Lance added with the authority vested in him by his Ph.D.

“It’s a puzzle,” was all I could contribute.

Soon enough, Gabby arrived, appearing through the tall grass with his pike rod in hand. He left immediately for the place he had stowed the Sportspal last fall. Only a few minutes later, he returned empty-handed.

“It’s gone. There’s no doubt about that. And it’s been gone a while. There was no dead grass underneath where I left it. Whoever moved it must have done it last fall or early spring this year. The paddle was gone, too. Whoever took it must have used it,” he said.

Other than the Sportspal mystery, Goose Camp was relatively uneventful. Erwin nearly bagged a limit of ducks. Gimpy did not spot a peregrine on nearby cliffs he was checking out. Val’s new dog Rosie did a fine job finding and retrieving grouse. And Homer provided his keen observations and rapier-like wit to liven things up when needed. At one point on Saturday afternoon, I counted seven snoozers in lawn chairs, chaise lounges, and on sleeping pads around the cabin and front yard.

It was all very sweet.

It would be even sweeter if whomever found and relocated our Sportspal would let us know where it is. We would be more than happy to share it with others. After all, we only need it once a year.