Just as I reached the second hillock, at the very moment I settled in for a minute's relaxation, the frozen surface gave way underneath me and I found myself belly down in cold, wet mud. The hillock had blocked the wind off, reducing the chill factor considerably, so the protected spot hadn't hardened up quite solidly enough to support 170 pounds of irrational man.
When I rolled over to try to get out of the mess, all I did was to break through the surface again, on my back this time, and coat that side of me with more icy mud.
One more roll and I was free, once again on solid ground on my stomach. Holding my breath, I listened. The geese were still out there feeding, apparently undisturbed. Although their muted honking sounded no closer than it had before, I couldn't risk raising my head to look.
About 20 minutes later I was behind the last hillock. My nose was running and my head ached. The mud that caked me from head to foot had hardened into something like a body cast, and I had never been so cold in my life, not even after slipping off a ledge and falling into a steelhead river in February when the water temperature was 33°.
But I had made it, and I hadn't spooked the geese. I could still hear their contented honking as they fed, though it seemed no louder than it had from the edge of the woods. I thought the numbing cold had affected my hearing.
Stiff muscles straining with the suddenness of my movement, I pushed to my feet and charged over the hillock, ran hard down the other side, pressing the safety off and raising the gun. And what did I see? About 200 geese, well scattered in groups on the grassy field, every one of them looking back at me, and the nearest one at least 100 yards away.
It dawned on me that they'd been aware of my presence all along. As I had crawled slowly toward them, suffering every foot of the way, they had grazed steadily off in the same direction, maintaining a safe distance between us.
As they took off, I kept running. Even with frozen feet and legs I'm not so slow, but I never got within 60 yards of any of them, too far to even consider wasting a shell. I slowed to a jog, then to a walk, and finally I stood and watched the geese climb and form their Vs and circle, honking down at me all the while. As always, it was something lovely to see.
An hour later I was home, soaking in a hot bath. I stayed in it a long time, thinking about my obsession.
I'd taken up hunting pretty much by accident. When I was a boy my grandfather shot pheasants and rabbits in the hills of western Pennsylvania with a double-barreled, two-triggered, 12-gauge Ithaca. What he genuinely loved, though, was his yearly expedition in pursuit of Canada geese. Every winter, he and his friends spent a week hunting geese somewhere on the Atlantic coast, and grandfather talked of little else for a couple of months after returning from these trips. I think they were the highlights of his life.