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Somewhere out in high, thick grass geese suddenly clamor as a fox springs for his breakfast or a big owl drops swiftly, grappling hooks at the ready, for his. The noisy alarm quickly dies, but it is after 4 and two axes are clunking now and bacon is frying and then voices begin from another tent.
In a sense, these sounds from geese and men were offstage noises for the biggest show a goose hunter can ever hope for—the annual autumn stopover in southern James Bay for all of creation's 600,000 or so blue geese, down a thousand miles from the foul climate of Baffin and Southampton islands, where some had broken wetly from the egg not much more than two months before. Here they would stay to fatten on roots and grasses until the late October storms drove them into the upper air for the 2,000-mile trip, sometimes nonstop, to their winter home on the Louisiana gulf coast. And here to meet them, up from the south by plane and train, were city men in red underwear and Dacron and nylon and well-used old hunting clothes. In an hour or so men and geese would be re-enacting one of mankind's classic rites, the hunt.
We'd seen the geese the day before—a sudden rising, swirling cloud of big birds, thousands of them.
As we approached, they let us come so close that we could pick out the adult blues, the black-headed yearlings, a few olive-brown young and here and there in the flock the spectacular white blob of a lesser snow.
And later Jimmy Cheecho, a tall and commanding Cree with a strong, merry face, had taken five hunters a mile back toward the shore through grass so thick that walking in it was like walking in thigh-high water. There they had seen the geese come in their evening flight in a mighty procession down the sky, spaced like a Fifth Avenue parade, flock after flock, mostly blues and lesser snows but sometimes the stately Canadas. The air never was empty of the sight and sound of them, and shots popped distantly, and some fell. At sundown guides and hunters were back in camp with 13 geese, shot without hides or decoys.
For most hunters in James Bay that week in mid-September this goose hunt was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For four Detroiters and one Roman with whom Photographer Ronny Jaques and I camped, it was their first trip here. The Detroiters were Harry J. Loynd, Dr. George Rieveschl Jr., Irving Winkler and Harold G. McGregor. The fifth hunter in the group was Nicholas Laskaris, who came to see how this compared with his own goose shoot in the marshes near Manfredonia in Italy.
Spread along about 150 miles of James Bay's muddy meadows that morning were 60 or 70 other hunters, almost all male, who had flown in to the three big commercial camps in the area—Len Hughes's Albany camp, the Ontario Northland Railway's camp and Tom Wheeler's Cabbage Willows camp. We had loaded our tents and bedrolls and stoves and food into high-sided 18-foot freighter canoes and had caught the tide out one morning from the Hudson's Bay Company post on Moose Factory Island. And here we were, with a Cree in waders saying he'd now cut willows for our hides and we'd leave in half an hour.
Overhead the sky was empty, but as we neared the bay shore at the creek mouth great feeding flocks of blues again let us approach into gun range.
Another Cree guide, Jimmy Marks, beached the canoe near where they'd been. About 80 yards in from the shore-line the willows went into the sopping turf like candles into a cake. About 30 yards out from the hide, toward the shore, Jimmy fashioned crude but effective decoys out of bluish mud with bits of toilet paper attached.
And then the geese came and we hunched down and Jimmy Marks gave out with an imperative falsetto kuerk! kuerk! kuerk! as they seemed to be passing us, 200 yards away. The geese answered and abruptly swerved in. Ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga came in a restful all-is-safe murmur from the guides. And the geese slid down toward us, wings set, heads looking down and turning from side to side, range 60 yards, 50, 40, 35—rise and fire.