HOW TO BAG A GOLDEN GOOSE
It will cost $12.50 a pound, but for three whole days the office can't telephone you, the company is top-drawer—and the bar never closes
PEOPLE WHO ARE supposed to know say that the goose hunting at Cabbage Willows camp at James Bay is the finest in the world. It’s certainly the most expensive: the hunter pays $540 for three days at the camp, during which he may shoot up to 15 geese and take 10 home. By the time you add plane fare to Montreal and all the miscellaneous expenses, each of these geese costs about $75 to put on the diningroom table — fairly steep for a six-pound bird that will yield only enough meat to feed two people.
But in a world filled with faster, cheaper, more efficient versions of everything, Cabbage Willows stands as a splendid bastion of the First-Class philosophy. There may be cheaper goose hunts and there may be more efficient ways of dealing with traveling hunters, but their effect on Cabbage Willows is nonexistent. The camp is run the way the owner, Tom Wheeler, a leanfaced, silver-haired 71-year-old, would like it run for himself.
You get this impression of luxury from the moment you land at Montreal’s Dorval airport. You’re met by a chauffeur who gets you and your equipment aboard a $15,000 limousine, breaks out the monogrammed traveling bar and wafts you up the Laurentian Autoroute to Club Lac Ouimet, a distance of three short Canadian Clubs or two tinkling gin-and-tonics.
Club Lac Ouimet, a luxury resort in its own right, has eight satellite hunting-andfishing camps of which Cabbage Willows is one. So you spend your first evening of the trip in this trophy-laden base camp, meeting your companions for the next few days and downing as fine a martini as you’ll ever find.
Cabbage Willows accommodates only 12 hunters and during the five-week goosehunting season, they try to get 10 or more parties in. Usually each party is short at least one hunter because of some lastminute cancellation. Ours was an unusual group in two respects.three of the 10 hunters were doctors; four were Canadians. Apparently doctors are a comparative rarity in hunting parties and generally not more than 10 percent of visitors to Cabbage Willows are Canadian, although Canadian content is climbing.
The evening at Lac Ouimet was mostly a feeling-out process as the hunters told each other about trips they had made, good shots they had seen other people make, and speculated about the shooting ahead. This is apparently all part of the pre-hunt ritual; no one will admit
continued on page 14A
continued from Leisure Living page 12A
to being any better than a mediocre shot and the aim is to trap other members of the party into blurting out that they actually are damn good shots. But this was obviously a group of seasoned hunters because throughout the long night of drinks and banter, nobody cracked.
Next morning a 5 a.m. jangle of telephones shook out the party for the five-hour flight to the goose camp. The main leg of the flight is handled by a tired old Canso that looks like it won World War II singlehanded, and by two alarmingly young pilots who turned out to be remarkably competent, shattering forever my image of grizzled old bush pilots. While the luggage was piled into the belly of the plane, Gerry Fitzgerald, an attractive woman who runs the base camp and is referred to as Mother Goose only in her absence, gave us another example of the Cabbage Willows First-Class philosophy — a planeside stirrup cup of vodka and tomato juice to wish us bon voyage. Honesty forces the admission that the voyage would have been more bon for several people if the Marys had been less Bloody.
However, into the Canso we piled cheerfully, and just as cheerfully sat in the chilly vibrating air frame for the next five hours. As they say in the flying business, let me lay it on you about Cansoes. They aren’t designed for sightseeing (and northern Quebec at 7 a.m. is no great shakes to look at, either). And you are your own stewardess. Washrooms? A five-gallon pail, if you dare risk the disapproval of your fellow passengers. There’s constant pitch and yaw and creaking sounds that remind you of all the articles you’ve read about metal stress and fatigue. And don’t forget the pilots, who look even younger at 5,000 feet, handing out vomit bags, grinning and eating their chopped-egg sandwiches all at the same time.
But for the queazy, we had our three male Florence Nightingales in parkas-, for the wicked and the stoic, we had one of the ubiquitous flying Wheeler bars. I found it a new sensation to drink bourbon that high in the air that early. Not all that nice, but new.
The Canso leaves the hunting party at Rupert House, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, to be transferred to a smaller Norseman which can land in the small stream at Cabbage Willows. But even in the bush, we ran across the bane of all air travel: the stopover. If you have to have stopovers, and modern airlines seem to insist on it, Rupert House is the place to have them. Where else can you watch a husky being trained, visit the church presided over by a Catholic priest with a 12-strong parish (plus a Cree convert he's not sure of yet), and thumb through a magazine in Cree, in which even Smoky the Bear looks Indian?
Firmly convinced that getting there had better not be half the fun, we finally touched down at Cabbage Willows goose camp. All the Cree guides and their families met the plane—the guides to off-load equipment, and their families for the weekly break in the monotony occasioned by an arriving plane. Owner Tom Wheeler met us, issued licences, and congratulated us on
our arrival, wearing a jaunty hunter’s cap and puffing on one of the 150 cigars he smokes each week.
And then we met the Mountie. If Canada didn’t have the RCMP, John Fisher would have to invent it. Canadians and Americans alike were impressed when Constable Art Harris strode through the four-inch-deep gumbo in sparkling boots and immaculate uniform (no, the one with the striped trousers and blue parka) to introduce himself and his views: no shooting
from the canoes under power, no shooting extra birds, no more than two shells in a gun, no liquor for the Indians. No liquor for the Indians? Shades of Nelson Eddy and firewater!
On to the cabin. It has two bedrooms holding eight and four people respectively, a bar-filled lounge, a dining room and a kitchen, a solicitous majordomo and a first-rate chef. It’s in details like these that Cabbage Willows outclasses all other goose camps. The bar is open 24 hours a day, and you drink all you want at no extra cost. Your licence is paid for ($15.50); all the ammunition you can fire is free; your birds are plucked and packed; your guns and clothes are cleaned for you; the plane is at your disposal. And then there are the meals — on our first evening we had an hour or two of drinks and exquisite hors d’œuvres, escargots bourquinon, game soup from Scotland and a better duck in a better sauce than any of us had experienced before. Washed down with a couple of good vintage wines, it all augured well for our three days of roughing it in the semifrozen north.
Waiting for niskuk
Came the dawn. And with it our first run up to the tidal flats in motorized canoes, two or three hunters and two guides to a boat. The boats separate as they approach the open bay, according to the whim of the individual guides who steer them up whichever shallow slough they feel will be in the flight path of the most geese that day. When the guides reach the spot they prefer, they tether the canoe to a long pole carried for the purpose and trudge out across the marshy plains to a spot they pick for no reason apparent to the hunters. They carry with them satchels of ammunition, a kettle and the ingredients for lunch, an axe, firewood, a shovel and huge bundles of Cabbage Willow branches to make blinds for the hunters to hide in. The hunter carries his gun and a little wooden box to sit on, and tries to catch up with the Crees, who pick their way through the mud, slush and bog as though it all were a paved sidewalk.
The junior guide builds the blind while the senior man makes the decoys to attract the geese into a good shooting position. He makes them in two ways. For blue geese, he turns over a large well-shaped shovelful of mud and sticks some white pinfeathers in the top to represent the neck and head of a feeding goose. For snow geese, he fills a triangular-shaped sack — which looks like it used to be a pillow case — with a willow bough and sticks it in the ground. He makes about 10 mudgeese and five cloth ones in an irregular pattern, then both Crees kneel down about 100 feet from the blind and wait.
continued on Leisure Living page 16A
They are waiting for niskuk, the goose, to finish his morning feeding on the marsh grasses and go out for his daily flight. This is a routine the geese follow for about a month when they arrive from their nesting grounds far above Hudson Bay. They spend the time fattening and getting ready for the long trip south. They put on nearly a pound of weight, and by the time the gaggles form large skeins to head south, each bird weighs about six pounds and has a wing span of more than four feet.
The weather was good our first morning out, and, as all goose shooters know, that’s bad. Waterfowl prefer cloudy and windy days and fly better then. But no matter, 10 minutes after sunup, we watched our guides crouch low in the marsh, with their blue parkas pulled up over their heads, and face into the sun. Following their line of sight, we saw a few dots in the sky, seemingly about to cross high and to the left long before they came near our blind. But the guides started to call the geese with a strange high-pitched barking sound — a-hook! a-hook! They quickly built up volume and tempo until the two men sounded exactly like the flock of 10 geese — which suddenly veered back into our path. As the birds got closer, the guides changed the call to a more enticing feeding call, which convinced the geese to come and take a look. They set their wings and glided in to land among our decoys. Thirty-five yards away, they looked huge through the branches of the blind and the hunters could wait no longer. They stood up in the four-foot-high blind and two guns fired twice each before the flock flared to safety. Two geese were hit and the incredibly smooth and graceful sweep of their wings stopped as they crumpled and fell leadenly to the ground.
The Crees caught the flapping birds, knelt on their backs for a minute (this suffocates the goose), and then propped them among the decoys with short sticks. If the guide has picked a perfect spot and the hunter is a crack shot, he can shoot his limit of five geese a day in half an hour. Normally it takes half a day. Apparently, the best technique is to keep your head down until the Crees shout, “Shoot!”, and then stand up to find a bird flying down your shotgun barrel. But our party was made up of relative novices who couldn’t stand the suspense and always fired while the birds were 40 to 50 yards out, along with really experienced marksmen who preferred the challenge of a long shot, so the cries of “Shoot!” were sporadic at best. The only times I heard it were when the hunters, staring intently out front, failed to notice equally surprised geese flailing furiously over the blind from the rear.
The Crees’ ability to sight and call geese is uncanny. They use no mechanical aids and can even bring flocks that have been shot at back for a second pass, as if the first barrage of fire were merely an unfortunate incident that the birds should overlook. The Crees at Cabbage Willows are reputed to be the elite of the world’s great waterfowl hunters. This makes sense because conditions are as good as they
get for an Indian in the north and Cabbage Willows has been around longer than any of the others on James Bay. There are nine guides, all relatives of the head guide, Old Frank Moore, with their families and a total of 32 children. They live in canvas - covered shacks across a stream from the hunting lodge, in poverty hard for an affluent hunter to understand. For instance, there are very few pieces of shot found in a Cree-cleaned goose, because the women probe out the shot and save it in a tin can so it can be reloaded when the guides themselves shoot.
It’s a camp rule that the guides don’t shoot on duty. And it’s probably a sensible rule; most sportsmen would be discouraged to see the skill of these men to whom a missed shot can mean the difference between dinner and hunger. The Cree are allowed to shoot geese in the spring, a grudging concession from the government which realizes the Indians are often on the verge of starvation when the birds arrive back north. The spring shoot must give them a new lease on life, since statistics indicate that most Cree children are born in February — nine months after the return of niskuk.
Hatful of birds
If the hunters have quickly bagged their limit of geese, they often stay out on the flats to poke at ducks. This is, of course, the signal for geese to appear in droves over the blind, and the lodge echoes for hours with tales of geese that “almost flew into the blind” or “could have been caught in a hat.” This I’ve yet to see; the one flock that supplied my group of hunters with stories to last a winter was 60 yards up, measured by telephoto lens. Ducks were relatively sparse for our group this year and the popular move was to head back to camp as soon as the afternoon tide was high enough.
Back at the lodge, the hunters with some foresight were met by majordomo Paul Titlet carrying mugs of his renowned hot buttered rum. Gradually by five o’clock the entire group would straggle in and settle down to an evening of friendly drinking and lying.
Harry Elsley, a lubrication engineer for a Hamilton, Ont., steel company, explained his problem for the day: “I had Russ |Russ Boston, a Cleveland printing executive] on one side of me and Dr. Ike [Ike Hanger, an internist from Virginia] on the other. Every time a goose came by, Russ would whisper, ‘Wait! Wait!’, and Dr. Ike would shout, ‘Git the bastard now!’, and I’d be up and down like a jack-in-the-box every time." Jack-in-the-box or not, he still got his birds.
As Boston, who has been to Cabbage Willows seven times, points out, “There are no straightmen in this camp — they’re all characters. We had a straightman a couple of years ago but he got pneumonia, I think.”
For the four Canadians, it was their first goose trip but they were able to draw on years of moose-hunting experience to match their U.S. cousins in shooting and in gentlemanly truthstretching. Each day, i asked the entire party how much they had shot and invariably got the same offhand answer: “Oh, about half a box or so” (12 to 14
Shells). A check with Tom Wheeler shows that year in and year out the actual usage is about two boxes of shells per man per day.
All four Canadians were from Hamilton: Bob Forsythe, who is a lubrication engineer for a steel company; Bob Forsythe, Jr., who owns a company that supplies lubricants to industry; and Ab Daniels, his sales manager. A certain amount of badinage about this “well-oiled” group of Canadians was inevitable. The best one-liner of the week came from livewire Daniels who said thoughtfully, “I don't seem to be shooting as well as I used to, but then I never did.”
One-upmanship is de rigueur at a hunt camp and the most consistently one-up was probably Sherman Schauer (pronounced as in rain), a 41-year-old retired businessman from Cincinnati. He retired at 38, and with a bundle from a machine-tooling business, but admits to being “quite active” now in the stock market. Were it not for his wealth, Schauer could be a gun bum, shooting’s equivalent of ski bums and tennis bums, ardent devotees of their special cults. He owns about 40 guns, including nine tooled and engraved Winchester Model 12s, considered by many the gun. He shoots 500 rounds of skeet a week, is a member of a Las Vegas gun club, an Ohio pheasantshooting club, and flies to wherever the shooting is good and the living is plush. Most people use a .12-gauge shotgun for geese; Sherm Schauer uses the much lighter .20-gauge. This gun combined with Schauer's 200 - plus pounds gave rise to a Cree nickname for Schauer, “Bigman-littlegun.” Oneup to the end, Schauer didn’t mention that his .20-gauge shotgun was chambered for special high-powered threeinch magnum shells, which more than made up for the shortness of his gun’s barrel.
Essentially, all three days were alike. The weather got duller, the shooting took a little longer, the food stayed superb and after we had been weathered-in for two days after our scheduled shoot, the liquor supply began to dwindle. But there was complete unanimity on one point: the trip was worth the money. Everyone from Dr. Bert Comeau, a New York insurance examiner, to John Pittington, a Seattle meat packer, agreed there was a difference at Cabbage Willows and it was worth the extra money. It's difficult not to make this sound like a plug, but after seeing Cabbage Willows, I wouldn’t go on the average $200-$300 James Bay goose hunt. If I couldn’t scrape together the extra money, I’d take the advice of Sherm Schauer’s pappy as far as goose shooting is concerned: "If you can’t go first class, stay home.” ★
LEISURE LIVING PHOTO CREDITS
Cover: Edgar Moench, Photo Researchers. Page 1, top: John Zichmanis. Page 1, middle: Peter Tasker, Miller Services. Page 1, bottom: Tom McHugh, Photo Researchers. Page 2, left: Tom McHugh, Photo Researchers. Page 2, right: C. G. Hampson. Page 3, left: Edgar Moench, Miller Services. Page 3, right: Russ Kinne, National Audubon Society. Page 4, top: Russ Kinne, Photo Researchers. Page 4, bottom: Russ Kinne, Photo Researchers.