We used to go to a different part of the province every year, perennially searching for the ultimate place—an idyllic, unspoiled prairie town with nice accommodations, good home cooking, rolling countryside, lots of lakes and sloughs, affable farmers and ducks galore. The trouble is, that describes just about every farm town on the western Prairies. After auditioning a dozen or more locales in as many years, though, we finally settled on B (I’m sworn to secrecy about the exact location).
When you drive into B it’s like entering a short story by W.O. Mitchell, complete with big dusty elms, old pickup trucks, preposterously wide and deserted streets, and a half dozen or so humble storefronts—a coffee shop, a hardware store, a feed store, a Chinese restaurant (there’s one in every town along the rail line) and the Texaco station with its antique gas pumps and a fat, crippled old collie that walks around with a sprig of hay protruding from its mouth.
We stay at the town’s only hotel, which doesn’t have much of a name: the 580. But it’s a pleasant old two-storey, wood-framed building with a restaurant, a dark, wood-panelled beer parlour and a warren of rooms upstairs. You check in by hauling your stuff upstairs and claiming any room that doesn’t have clothes and shotguns piled on the bed. You can walk in and out of all the rooms because you’re in a part of the country where nobody uses keys. And you don’t need to lock your guns either, because government theories about gun crime have no relevance here. You could walk into the coffee shop in your camouflage duds, break open your shotgun, lean it in the corner and nobody would bat an eye. There are guns everywhere, but there’s no crime. And the last time anyone saw an RCMP cruiser was a few months ago, when the cops came through town to solicit sponsorships for their annual Torch Run.
We stay for a full week, and some of the bigger rooms can become as boisterous as fraternity parties after the big homecoming game. So I like to stay in one of the single rooms at the far end of the hall, which offers you the freedom of going to the party if you like or calling it an early night. It doesn’t matter which room you choose because they’re all outfitted with the same lurid, multi-coloured carpeting, a small bathroom and a miniature black-and-white television with two fuzzy channels.
I’m not much worried about whether the birds will come. If they do, that’s great. If they don’t come, that’s fine, too. Mother Nature no longer owes me anything.
After dropping my bags on a narrow bed I head downstairs to the dining room to join the rest of the boys. A room here is $25 a night and the meals, too, are what you could safely call affordable; reading the menu posted on the dining room door gives you the feeling that you’ve dropped through a hole in the space-time continuum and landed in 1956. Since we more or less take over the hotel for a week, the girls in the kitchen prepare a nightly feast and charge us by the head. Tonight it seems we’re having home-cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, accompanied by real pumpkin pie and whipped cream, all of which will probably set us each back about eight bucks.
The guys sit at tables arranged in a long row, and there are great rounds of cheers and catcalls as newcomers enter the room. Handshakes and high fives go around the tables. Most of us grew up in Winnipeg, where we went to school and played hockey and learned to hunt under the tutelage of our fathers, skipping school on autumn Fridays and going off to hunt ducks on the big marshes of Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba.
We weren’t allowed to carry guns at first, so we worked as two-legged bird dogs. When we got a little older we learned to shoot, and like most quick-handed, sharp-eyed teenagers, we were pretty good at it. I couldn’t understand how anyone could miss a flying duck. (I’m an expert at missing them now.) And most of my friends were better than me. Victor was like a robotic duck-shooting machine. And the Gibbon was hell on wheels with his little 20-gauge semi-automatic.
No matter how well we shot, though, the old boys weren’t impressed. To them, the object wasn’t to shoot well, but to hunt well. The goal was to be humble, try hard, stay keen, use your creativity, be generous to others, pull your share of the load and muster up graciousness in the face of disappointment. To them, the skills that went into producing a good hunt were the same skills needed to lead a good life. Their attempts at teaching us those skills must have succeeded because they’re gone, and we’re still here.