Up Here is pleased to present the fourth annual Sally Manning Award for Indigenous Creative Non-Fiction to Cullen Crozier for The Duck Caller, a story told by his grandfather, the legendary Peter Fraser. “A Métis storyteller, hunter, trapper, forestry officer, special constable for the RCMP, cab driver, politician, and all-around Northern legend,” Fraser passed away in 2000 but left behind a wealth of audio recordings. Crozier came across this particular tale within that treasure-trove and adapted it for the Sally Manning contest. “He always told stories and they were always really funny,” says Crozier, an award-winning investigative journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. “You go anywhere in the North today and talk to elders, they always remember my grandpa and his funny stories.”
There are few things in this life more satisfying than the sound of a good duck call.
Growing up in Fort Chipewyan back in the 1920s, duck calling was a serious business. We kids would spend hours honing our skills day and night.
We’d call ducks first thing in the morning, on the way to school and we’d call ducks long after the sun went down. In the beginning, we used to call ducks in for our fathers to shoot, then as we got older we called them in for ourselves.
There were 11 of us growing up and it was a widely accepted fact that I was the best duck caller of the bunch. Even to this day, there are few who can match my warbling precision—in fact, I’ve only met one who’s ever come close.
It was the winter of 1935 and I had just returned home after spending five years at residential school in Hay River. I was 14 years old and glad to be done with that place, let me tell you.
I was living with my sister and her husband at the time. They had a small cabin along the banks of the Richardson River. We basically lived right off the land. It’s not like today; back then you had to get out and work or else you’d just starve to death. It was a good life, something different anyways and it was free.
But I always felt most at home when I was out on the land. I had a trapline back in those days. It was a small trapline but it was mine and I worked it hard. Some days I’d walk out to my traps and it would be too late to come back, so I’d just sleep out there. Nobody seemed too worried about me, no one reported me missing or anything.
Sometimes I’d stay out there for a few nights; sometimes I’d stay longer. I had a canvas tent that I packed with me and a little blanket for when it got cold. I’d just set up a small camp under the trees and check my traps until it started getting dark. It was good, as long as I could find something to eat. I’d catch a few rabbits or snare a muskrat or two and I’d be just fine.
I remember some of my friends would ask me, “You stay out in the bush all by yourself? You don’t get scared?” I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be scared of. If I knew there was something I was supposed to be afraid of maybe I’d have been scared. But traditional life is like that; you don’t really have time to be scared. You’re too busy just trying to stay alive.
One day I was out checking my trapline. It was a cold day. I couldn’t tell you exactly how cold it was because no one ever had any thermometers, but the weather never bothered me none. Anyways, I was walking along the trapline when I came across this duck track going straight south. And I thought to myself, “What the heck is a duck doing walking along a trap line?” As far as I knew, ducks flew south for the winter. They didn’t walk.
The tracks looked fresh enough and I decided to follow them. The snow was deep, so I strapped on my snowshoes and walked for about a mile or two until I came to a small hot spring. There was a thick cloud of warm steam rising up around the lake any which way you looked, but through the mist I could faintly hear something splashing around in the water.
As I got closer to the shoreline, the fog began to clear and lo and behold there was this little mallard having himself a bath in the hot springs. He was a mangy looking thing—too small and skinny to bother shooting—but he seemed to be enjoying himself just fine and I wasn’t about to interrupt him.
I crouched down and waited for the duck to finish his bath. After a few minutes he came waddling up out of the hot springs and had himself a seat next to a large patch of willows. I could see right off that there was something wrong with his wing by the way it was hanging awkwardly down by his side.
I got up and calmly made my way over to the duck. I imagine he must have been pretty tired by that point and he hardly moved or made a sound as I snatched him up out of the willows. His greyish-brown feathers were matted against his back and he couldn’t have weighed more than a pocket full of loose change.
Now, I’m not what you’d call a sentimental man. Most days I would have just shot the darn duck, took him back to camp and ate him. But for some reason, I guess I felt kind of sorry for him, being out in the bush all by himself, trying to make his way south on foot. So I decided to take him home with me to see if anything could be done.
I brought the duck back to camp, wrapped him in an old blanket, put him in my sleigh and babied him all the way home. It wasn’t a long trip, maybe three miles or so, and the going was easy enough. Every now and then, we’d hit a bump and the duck would pop his shiny-green head up out of the blanket and have a look around. Sometimes he’d even glance back up at me, wondering who this strange boy was and where the hell I was taking him, I imagine.
We didn’t have no animal doctors back in those days, heck we didn’t really have people doctors either come to think of it. We had elders who looked after folks when they were sick. They knew what kind of medicine to use and more importantly how to use it. These elders were very valuable to the communities and it just so happened that one lived right next door to us.
We got back home just as the sun was starting to set. I dropped off my gear, picked up the duck and made my way over to old Katie’s. She was a kind lady and as one of the community’s oldest elders, you always knew to treat her with respect. I remember she had about 21 chickens and a nice little chicken coop out back, behind her shed.
I knocked on her screen door loud enough so to be sure she heard me, and after a moment she answered. She was a small woman, no more than four feet tall as I remember, but what she lacked in size she made up for in other ways, you better believe it.
She wore a pink kerchief around her head and a purple dress with brown leggings that could be seen just below her knees. On her feet she had on an old pair of battered slippers with simple beadwork and white rabbit fur around the sides. “Evening Katie,” I said, kicking the snow from my boots before stepping inside. “I found something you might be interested in.”
I carefully unwrapped the blanket and showed Katie the duck. She reached out with wrinkled, but surprisingly strong hands and took him from me. She inspected his wing, squinting her eyes intently and when she did, the lines in her face seemed to double; too many to count anyways. But then she smiled and her round face lit up the small room.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
So sure enough, Katie goes to work on this duck. There wasn’t much to it actually.
She put some small splints on his bone and taped the wing up so it wouldn’t move, then she put him in with the chickens. And actually he survived pretty darn good with those chickens. He held his own, anyways.
A few weeks later, Katie invited me over for some tea. I had almost forgot about the duck altogether until, to my surprise, he came waddling over to the screen door to greet me. He had fattened up right good since I found him in the hot springs and the tape around his wing looked about ready to burst at the seams.
I let myself in, careful to step over the duck, as Katie poured us each a glass of hot tea from a kettle that was sitting on top of her old wood stove. We both took a seat at her kitchen table, while the duck nestled himself down on top of Katie’s worn out slippers.
“Well Pete,” Katie said, blowing on her tea before taking a small sip. “I think it’s high time we see how your little friend here is doing.”
She picked the duck up off her slippers and began unwrapping his wing, taking great care not to pull on the tape any harder than she had to. Once that business was out of the way, she carefully set him back down again.
The duck took a few uneasy steps around the room, uncertain of what to do next. He lifted his mended wing up to the light and had a good look at it, slowly stretching it out before giving it a cautious flap.
The duck looked up at Katie questioningly.
“Go on,” she said, shooing him with her small hands.
And just like that, he took a couple of awkward jumps, flapped his wings with all his might and started flying around the little room. Katie and me both had a darn good laugh about it.
And he actually got to be quite friendly after that. He followed me around wherever I went. He wouldn’t bother flying. He’d just wobble along behind me.
I often wonder what people must have thought, seeing me walking down the road with this duck following close behind, quacking away without a care in the world. I imagine some of them must have figured I had lost my damn mind—too much time alone out on the trapline.
But no one said anything to me about it and I guess I wouldn’t have cared too much if they did. What business is it of theirs if a boy wants to keep a pet duck anyways?
Sure, we’d get a few strange looks and snickers from passers-by from time to time. But you better believe no one was laughing come spring when the ducks started coming in.
Now I don’t know what ever got me thinking that this duck would make a good hunting partner, just a feeling I guess. Lord knows I’d taken enough southerners out hunting in my time with their fancy blinds and duck calls, just to come back empty handed. And I guess I just figured, who better to call in ducks than one of their own?
It was the beginning of a warm spring day when I finally decided to put my idea to the test. I woke up just before dawn, filled a small thermos with hot tea, packed my tote bag with all the shells it could carry and slung my shotgun over my shoulder. I walked out of the house and over to the chicken coop, where the duck was patiently waiting for me.
Now I don’t know if it was just my imagination, but this duck looked like it knew we were about to go on some sort of adventure. To this day, I swear there was recognition, hell, even excitement, that I saw behind those brilliant brown eyes of his. I reached down and gently stroked the duck’s feathery backside.
“Ready?” I said to the duck.
“Wak-wak,” the duck replied.
We slowly made our way through the community, walking down the same dusty back roads we walked dozens of times before, only this time was different. This time we walked with a sense of purpose bordering on the divine, as if some unseen force was guiding our way—breaking a trail towards destiny.
We reached the river just as the sun was starting to rise. I took cover behind some bushes as the duck waddled down to the shoreline. He pushed some dirt around with his beak before taking a seat along the riverbank. He fluttered his wings once and just like that, began calling to his friends.
“Wak-wak-wak-wak,” the duck sang out across the river—the piercing sound carrying over the rushing waters before breaking in the distance.
I waited patiently, trying my hardest not to imagine the sound of laughing townsfolk, when lo and behold a large mass of ducks start coming in, as far and wide as the eye can see. It was a glorious sight to behold, let me tell you.
I carefully unslung the shotgun from my shoulder, pumped a shell into the barrel, took a deep breath and fired.
I can’t say for certain how many ducks we killed that day, truth be told I’ve probably let the number grow over the years. A dozen? Two dozen maybe? Either way, the flock knew they’d been in a fight that’s for sure. After the smoke cleared, the duck came waddling back up the hill again and had a seat next to me. He’d done his job and I’d done mine.
And that’s how it went for the duck and me. If we couldn’t get any ducks along the banks, he’d head into the river and then they’d come for sure. The sounds of his quacking always echoed by the blast of my shotgun.
Yes, we became quite the team that summer, not to mention the talk of the community. No one batted an eye or snickered when we’d walk down the back roads anymore. Maybe it was because of the stories they heard of the young boy and his pet duck who were filling up ice boxes all over town with fresh game. Maybe it was because of the shotgun I carried.
Sometimes the duck would disappear for a couple of days. When he was gone, I’d find myself looking up to the skies wondering what he was up to. Then, out of nowhere, he’d come strolling back into the chicken coop like he owned the place, looking for something to eat.
Then one day he never came back at all.
I like to imagine that he found a nice little mate and took off to build a nest somewhere and raise a few ducklings of his own. Maybe he’d tell them stories of the boy he met who fixed his wing and taught him to hunt, but probably somebody just shot him. He was pretty tame by that point.
Peter Fraser was a Métis storyteller, hunter, trapper, forestry officer, special constable for the RCMP, cab driver, politician and Northern legend. He grew up on the land and travelled more of the North than most of us dare to dream. He died in 2000.
Cullen Crozier is an award-winning investigative journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. He grew up on the mean streets of Yellowknife and is one of Peter Fraser’s 875 known grandchildren.