Autumn’s Big Chill Comes to Swan Lake Goose Camp


By opening weekend of waterfowl season the Swan Valley is in full autumn regalia. The tamaracks have turned and the Swan and Mission Ranges are swathed in gold. Cottonwood, aspen and birch on the valley floor have deposited a calf-deep carpet of leaves. At Swan Lake, the crisp, clean fall air is punctuated by the smell of wood smoke drifting lazily along the shoreline.

It is fifteen years now since the eight of us first gathered at the old cabin on Swan Lake to usher in the waterfowl season. We have been doing it ever since. We call it Goose Camp.

The ritual is repeated all over this part of the country on the same weekend every year. Friends gather to spend a morning or two hunkered in damp, chilly blinds while first light creeps across the marshes, waiting for ducks and geese to come tumbling out of the sky into range of their shotguns.

That’s how Goose Camp started. Even then we knew that the Swan was no Mecca for duck and goose hunting. Our experience over fifteen years has shown why.The circumstances surrounding the taking of each of the nine geese that have been downed in that period are recounted around the kitchen table each year, usually with much hilarity. The ducks haven’t fared much worse.

Sure, early on we took the hunting seriously. Our disheveled crew, complete with the long hair, beards and maybe a few left-over beads of the time, some fresh from military duty, some fresh from avoiding it, would arrive in a couple of battered pickups on those early fall afternoons. We always got there in time to erect elaborate blinds and arrange large numbers of second-hand decoys according to the latest theories espoused in outdoor magazines.

Come opening morning we clutched our hand-me-down shotguns and shivered in our leaky waders as we waited for first light, trying to quiet our whimpering dogs while we strained to hear whether there were geese or ducks on the water before us. If there were some birds out there, we held our fire when legal shooting hours came, hoping that live birds would bring in even more.

The Way We Were

The Way We Were

Things have changed.

Now there are fancy trucks in the driveway, and planes to be met from San Francisco and Seattle. The shotguns that are carefully removed from the padded cases are the ones we once read about in the magazines some of our group now write for. And nobody rushes to get to the blinds.

Instead, the arrival on Friday afternoon has become something of a ceremony. Where we once spent most of our free time rambling around the mountains and rivers together, now many of us meet only this weekend each year. There is much hugging, back slapping and heavy-handed commentary about the ravages time has wrought on each of us. The slightest expansion of girth, greying at the temples or thinning on top is exhaustively noted.

As evening comes on, we move to the tiny kitchen of the cabin where we crowd around the table and gorge on elk or grouse and Erwin’s huckleberry pie, the banter and laughter never stopping. After dinner, Gabby produces a list of obscure words encountered in a year’s worth of reading and we match wits, trying to come up with plausible definitions. Each year, someone surprises the rest by actually knowing the meaning of a word like ‘verdigris.’

Later on comes some poker, maybe a glass of whiskey for those who haven’t taken the pledge yet. It isn’t that anyone needs the whiskey to warm things up. Just being together does that.

In days gone by, we might have stayed up until the wee hours, drinking, laughing, arguing. Then, a few short hours later we would slog dull-witted through the dark to our blinds. Not any more. It might just be middle age, or maybe too many nights up with crying babies. It’s hard to tell why exactly, but we all turn in at what our parents used to call a “decent hour.”

Then, sometime around daylight, after a leisurely breakfast, we all depart for our favorite spots and throw out a few decoys as we wait for the Sun to sneak up over the Swan Range and burn off the mist lying low on the water. By midmorning we straggle back to the cabin for coffee. Some settle down for naps, others might head off to stroll in search of grouse, some might wander up the Swan River to wet a fly. Nothing seems particularly urgent.

It is clear to everybody that we aren’t in it for the ducks anymore. Most of us have plenty of opportunity to spend time on other, more productive waterfowl areas throughout the season. But for now, for this one weekend, we are captives of tradition.

When we first started coming to Goose Camp, we were all pretty carefree, with lots of time and few responsibilities. As a group we probably cut a fairly wide swath back then. Now there are families to consider, careers to attend to, mortgages to pay off and the endless minutia of daily life to pull us in all directions. Over the years there have been family tragedies, financial difficulties, career changes, and personal demons of all sorts for each of us to wrestle with. Our lives have taken different paths, yet somehow each year, the appointment at Goose Camp has been kept.

For those two days each year the clock is turned back and we are kids again. It always ends too quickly of course. On Sunday afternoon the old cabin is left empty as we each return to our real lives. That’s when the vague feeling of loneliness that creeps around the edges of autumn days gives way to a melancholy that renders the mountains and valleys almost painfully beautiful on the long drive home.

(This column, written 37 years ago at this posting marked my first appearance on the Missoulian’s Outdoor page, October 1, 1987. Goose Camp continues every fall.)

Categories: Friendship, Hunting, Traditions