From June through Labor Day, Captain Ransom Pingree Kelley, resplendent in blue and white uniform and white officer's cap, sails out of Maine's Boothbay Harbor, Christmas Cove and Pemaquid Beach with boatloads of tourists in bathing suits and Bermuda shorts. His maxim for the tourists is casual: "Experience the sense and feel of a variety of water.... Leave when you like." But on a chilly November morning, with the thermometer at 10�, Ransom Kelley, duck guide, in rumpled wool shirt and pants, tentlike camouflage parka and fur-lined hat, backs the Magnum II out of her slip at a time that he likes—4:30 a.m.—and heads out of the harbor for the offshore ledges.
Kelley is Maine's biggest (6 feet, 275 pounds) and most erudite seabirder. Harvard-educated and a gunner ever since he first shot over live goose and duck decoys on Massachusetts' Duxbury Beach, Kelley happily relinquished Boston society when he was 20 and moved to Maine. In the 31 years since, he has sailed into every harbor on the Maine coast, raised crops and cattle, guided on Merrymeeting Bay, won the state skeet championship, married the attractive daughter of an old Maine market hunter and guide (it was kind of a shotgun wedding: they went duck shooting before and after the ceremony), sold boats and finally settled into the excursion-boat business.
A huge man whose girth is exceeded only by his agility, Kelley is one of very few duck guides left who can scull a shallow-draft boat right into the middle of a raft of ducks in an open bay. He is also the only duck guide in New England who takes shooters out to the offshore ledges in a 60-foot excursion boat fitted out with bunks, heaters, a refrigerator full of steaks and enough duck decoys to fill a large dory.
Riding in the wake of the Magnum II on ice-caked towlines are a Boston Whaler and the Canard Noir, a 20-foot outboard-powered duck boat that looks more like the Monitor than a cleverly designed floating blind. Kelley steers through the gloom, looking at his charts and munching on a stale chocolate doughnut. Peg and Bess, his Labradors, snuggle up against him, wet noses quivering, eyes trained on the doughnut.
"Afraid I'll have to leave you girls on board today," Kelley says to his dogs. "We'll pick up the birds with the motor-boat. It'll be choppy out there, and I don't want you to be chasing diving cripples around all morning and get battered against the ledge by the waves."
Eiders, Kelley explains, can carry off enough shot to sink most ducks. Even when hit with a 12-gauge magnum load, well-placed, most eiders require a second shot after they strike the water. Those that manage to dive before the finishing shot is fired lead dogs on a wild chase. Sometimes they even get help from seals. Not long ago, Kelley sent a dog after a crippled eider. "All of a sudden she was surrounded by 25 big seals. They herded her right back onto the ledge. Never bit her, but she sure was all atremble. Scared her half to death."
The eiders—American and Northern—are the largest of the North American ducks, and the hardiest. Long after other waterfowl have been driven down the Atlantic coast by freezing winds, snow and subzero temperatures, huge rafts of eiders ride the heavy swells offshore, diving to 60 feet and deeper for blue mussels, snails and other mollusks and crustaceans which they grind up with powerful gizzards.
While most duck shooters snuggle deeper under the blankets, the Maine seabirder gets up at 4 a.m., drives his boat through swells that wash over the decks and turn them into sheets of ice, sets his trawl line of decoys, anchors in the lee of a ledge and covers his boat with rockweed. There, buffeted by the wind and soaked with freezing spray, he suffers and waits for eiders to come in from the sea to feed. The more impetuous hunter may even ride the swells onto the ledge, cover up his boat and wedge himself into a cold, wet barnacle-encrusted crevice. Not surprisingly, few duck shooters will subject themselves to such tortures, even for a daily bag limit of seven ducks. But with Kelley it is possible to "go eiderin' " not only in comfort but in real style.
In the first pink light of a chilly dawn a ledge called The Cuckolds looms to starboard. Kelley slides back a window in the pilothouse. "Look right to windward of that ledge," he says, pointing to a raft of perhaps 1,000 eiders bobbing in the chop. As the boat moves closer, the rearguard of eiders, snowy-white and black drakes and drab, brown hens patters clumsily across the surface, their wings, set well astern on their bodies, revving up until finally they get up above the waves. The rest of the raft follows until they are all flying, a twisting string of ducks half a mile long. By the time the decoy trawl is set and the Canard Noir is anchored 35 yards away against the ledge, small flocks of eiders, flushed by lobster boats, begin to fly back in.
Inside the blind, Kelley toasts his feet in front of a kerosene lantern, sips a cup of tea and peers out over the high, hinged sides. A flock of 25 eiders banks into the wind and heads for the decoys. For a moment they are lost to view in the wave troughs. Then suddenly they gain altitude, pass over the decoys and hook around. Feet down and wings set, they glide in.