Sunday, December 6, 2009

Two Hens and a Harley

Perfect days come in all shapes and sizes. Some people might require a stroll on a tropical beach wearing a sarong, and a fabulous sunset to make the grade. Others might require a Superbowl win for their favorite team and a really good pot-luck dinner while they're watching it on a 102 inch projection style television.

Mine usually involve some combination of a bonfire and an early autumn night, starry skies above and lightning bugs firing in the woods and the hollows at dusk. But I like to be flexible about these things. I had a perfect day just a month ago, and the two things that really made this particular combination "magic" and memorable were a Harley Sportster and a pair of delinquent ducks. I think that at the tail end of the day we even managed to fit in the bonfire and the starlit sky.

But was still all about the ducks.

We're six days into December right now, edging closer to the first official day of winter though the temperatures in the morning have been jump starting me into the winter grumpies. Any day when the thermometer reads "something-teen" as I'm driving to work means that my winter mood has arrived already. And I hate winter.

If it wasn't five months long and didn't involve wind chills of forty or fifty below, I think I'd take it in stride a bit more easily. But this is Wisconsin, and I can still find pockets of snow in my garden in April. When I get cold, it can take me until the next day to really warm up, no matter how much hot chocolate with Kahlua and whipped cream and nutmeg sprinkled on top that I try to cure the chills with. And by the next day, we start the cycle all over again.

For me, the perfect winter would be about two weeks long. Over Christmas, of course, with enough snow on the ground to make a snowman, and some snow angels, and deep enough to make it worthwhile to bring out my snowshoes for my annual snowshoe trek around the edge of the property. Hot cider, cookies baking, fire crackling in the hearth, Currier & Ives feel to the holidays.

And then God can turn the switch to "Spring," and I'm ready to start looking at daffodils and crocuses and bluebirds again. So far he's still waiting on my suggestion.

In the meantime, we took one last glorious grab at a warm day on the motorcycle, and I have faith that it'll keep me going until April.

It was the first weekend in November, of all times, and the weather forecasters were predicting that temps could reach seventy degrees on Sunday. We hadn't had the bike out very often this year, and October had been a complete wash. Cold, relentlessly rainy, dreary, dismal, dispiriting. Forget the expectation of "Indian summer," that appointed time went by under grey skies and cold drizzle. We felt cheated, big time, by the loss of fall afternoons that should have been spent in the yard or on the bike. I walked around constantly grumbling that I wanted a refund for the month of October. Who even cared that we might get a few warm days later on, when the daylight was so short that the yard was dark by the time we cut loose from our actual jobs.

But still, a seventy degree weekend day is nothing to waste no matter what time of year, and we packed up a picnic lunch and broke out the bike. "Let's put the sun in our faces," he said, and I didn't need a second invitation. There's a reason the leather jacket and black boots sit in the closet closest to my front door. I brought sub sandwiches and chips and a cookie apiece, and we took the meandering back roads west to the city of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. We indeed had the sun in our faces as we rode past fields and evergreens and marshes with tall grasses and cattails bending in the breeze.

By two in the afternoon, we were ready for lunch, and pulled up to a spot beside a lake in the middle of the city. A stretch of raised concrete beside the water was the perfect picnic spot, and we settled in, our legs dangling over the side. A pair of identical mallard hens came swimming over to us as we unwrapped our sandwiches. These ducks were so cute!!!!! Bright eyed and buoyant, curious and friendly, they eyed us with precision and intent.

Our first inkling that something surprising might be afoot was when one of the hens launched herself in a flurry of wing beats out of the water and landed on my boyfriend's lap, then sank her beak into his sandwich, pulling away a chunk of bread. The brazen hussy!! He waved her off and back into the water, and then cracked up with laughter. We didn't get much of a break, though, because first one, then the other, then at times both, kept up in launch mode.

I'd never been that close to a wild duck before, but this was surreal and hysterically funny. I held my arm out to protect my sandwich at one point, only to have one of the hens fly up and land on my forearm like a raptor, balancing on her little wet webby orange feet until I jiggled her off and back into the lake. After the first few tries of lap landing, the pair changed their direct approach to one of landing beside us on the concrete, and trying to sneak their beaks into our laps to nibble at crumbs. At least a couple of times a minute, I'd be fitting my free hand under a duck's warm, feathered chest or tummy, and lifting her up off the concrete and casually dropping (or tossing) her back into the water without ceremony.

Crunching a handful of potato chips and throwing them on the water occasionally bought us a few extra seconds to take a bite or two of our sandwiches without being molested, as the hens scurried after the chips floating on the water like a pair of guided missiles. Though it's it's hard to chew and laugh at the same time without choking. I don't know what possessed me to leave my little digital camera behind, other than the desire to just have nothing to do for an afternoon than sit on the back of the bike and empty my mind as the countryside rolled past.

We eventually made it through our lunch, though I'd have to guess that the ducks made off with about a third of our sandwiches, most of the potato chips, and half of the cookies. Okay, by the time they were nibbling on pieces of macadamia nut cookies, we were officially volunteering the treats. The afternoon started to cool under the bright blue sky, and we finally got up to leave. Tossing our sandwich wrappers into a trash can nearby, I looked up at a small sign hanging in the parking lot behind us warning visitors not to feed the waterfowl.

Oops. It reminded me of hiking at the Grand Canyon with my son a few years ago and having a marvelous, memorable time feeding granola bars to a friendly squirrel, only to finally see the tiny "do not feed..." sign as we were leaving. Oops!

The rest of the day unfolded with familiar joys--cutting and stacking firewood, dinner, a bonfire on an unbelievably warm November evening, and an inky sky studded with stars.

But it's the ducks I'll be laughing about all the way through the long, cold winter, reminding me of a perfect ride in the country on a perfect warm fall day. I hope that bold-as-brass pair of mallards finally figures out the way south with the rest of the flock. That whole "shoreline banditry" thing only works when there are easy marks on a warm, sunny day.

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