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Monday, December 8, 2014 at 10:35 am

The Day the Duck Hunters Died: a look back at waterfowling's darkest hour

It was a time when much of the country was still feeling the effects from the Great Depression. In rural America the contents of a hunter's game bag greatly helped add to the family larder. Water fowl bag limits were quite liberal at the time and shotgun shells nowhere near as costly as they would become. A box of birdshot cost $1.25 -- a mere farthing by today's standards.

According to the Minnesota Public Radio archives, the autumn of 1940 was unseasonably warm throughout the state. The area had experienced a real Indian Summer during October that year and November began much the same way. Because warm autumns aren't conducive to great duck hunting, the wing shooting hadn't been much to write home about -- at least not until this day.

The morning of November 11th dawned sunny with the thermometer reading 50 degrees -- almost balmy for Northern Minnesota so late in the year. The temperature would climb to near 60 degrees. For outdoorsmen it was practically shirtsleeve weather. A good number of sportsmen heading out to the backwaters of the Mississippi where it flows past Winona were dressed accordingly -- nothing more than a canvas hunting jacket over a light shirt. 

In addition to the sloughs and backwaters of the upper Mississipi watershed, the river is dotted with a maze of islands where it flows past Winona, making the area ideal habitat for duck blinds. And this is where a good number of duck hunters headed that November day. 

By early afternoon the sky clouded over and a wind came up. It was a light wind at first and with it came the rain -- prime conditions for hunting ducks. The temperature began to drop and sure enough, the ducks began arriving in good numbers. Big flocks numbering in the hundreds at first, but before long the ducks were funneling into the backwaters of the upper Mississippi by the thousands. After a while the rain turned to sleet and still the ducks poured into the sloughs and backwaters. The sky was black with ducks and a few geese mixed in as myriad waterfowl all across the upper Mississippi flyway were silhouetted against gray storm clouds.

What appeared to be dream conditions for the duck hunters was really an omen, a forebode warning. In their zeal the gunners totally misread Mother Nature's danger signal. The ducks, countless thousands of them, were seeking shelter from an imminent storm. The hunters, meanwhile, merely thought it their good fortune to be afield for a waterfowl movement such as was taking place before their very eyes. They had no clue what was bearing down on them.

Predicting the weather in those years was not the science it would one day become. If those early meteorologists had at their disposal the sophisticated weather-predicting equipment of today, they would have known a strong storm that had originated in the Pacific Northwest had barreled across the Rocky Mountains and, instead of weakening after crossing the Continental Divide as is usually the case, it tapped into an intense low-pressure system carrying plenty of rain from the Gulf of Mexico before colliding with a frigid arctic air mass from Canada. A recipe for a weather disaster was in the making.

As the temperature continued to drop, the sleet turned into snow and what had become a stiff wind began increasing in instensity, growing ever stronger. Still, the waterfowl kept coming, providing the gunners hunkered down in the cattail-lined sloughs the duck hunt of a lifetime. The bag limit at that time consisted of 10 ducks and for those who had yet to fill their quota, with so many birds on the wing, it appeared to be just a matter of time before doing so. Thus, in the excitement of the hunt, shotguns continued to boom throughout the backwaters of the upper Mississippi.

"THE WINDS OF HELL"

The time eventually came when those who had refused to abandon their duck blinds earlier would have to pay the consequences one way or another. Mother Nature was about to unleash her fury.

The wind continued to strengthen and the hunters who had yet to leave, those still in the elements, knew they had made a dire mistake. For the hunters on the river islands, blinding snow and 70-mph winds made getting back to shore next to impossible. While a scant few somehow managed to get back to shore, for most it was an exercise in futility. Without outboard motors, wooden rowboats and skiffs were no match for the whitecaps and five-foot waves that stood between them and safety. It would prove to be at best a harrowing ordeal for those stranded anywhere among that maze of islands.

By nightfall the temperature had plummeted to 2 degrees but hurricane-force winds created a windchill of minus 55. In desperation, boats, decoys and duck blinds were burned in an attempt to provide warmth. Some repeatedly walked in circles to keep their blood flowing, others struck themselves over and over, pounding themselves in the arms and torso to keep the circulation moving.

What awaited rescue personnel the next day were a series of grim, surreal scenes. Throughout the region hunters were found lying prone, some beneath their duck boats, others covered by the drifting snow. One man was found standing in waist deep water -- he was frozen solid, his arms still clinging to a tree. Raging winds had driven the river up and over what little dry land, if any, was to be found on that particular spit of land.

One teen survived only because the family's two black labs had nestled on either side of him and remained that way throughout the night. The boy's brother, father and uncle weren't so fortunate. While many froze to death, others drowned in their attempt to cross the river sloughs in low-slung duck boats that were no match for five-foot waves and 70-mph winds.

The deadly storm ravaged parts of three states and was the reason for a head-on collision between a freight train and a passenger train loaded with duck hunters. Unable to see in the white-out conditions, the passenger train's crew missed a trackside signal. On Lake Michigan three freighters and two smaller boats sank, claiming 66 lives. All told, the storm was responsible for 160 deaths. Of that total, nearly 50 of them duck hunters, the majority perished in the upper Mississippi watershed near Winona.

The cataclysmic weather phenomena which struck the Upper Midwest on Nov. 11th, 1940, has since been labeled in many ways. For some it was the Armistice Day Blizzard, others called it the Storm of the Century. One newspaper's headlines referred to it as The Winds of Hell.

However that tragic event is recalled, in the annals of waterfowling and for the family and friends of those who perished, it will no doubt be remembered as The Day the Duck Hunters Died.

Friday, December 5, 2014 at 10:49 am

It's late autumn and the critters help themselves to whatever's available

post by JIM NIGRO in outdoors

This gray squirrel found a weathered and wrinkly apple on the ground and decided on taking it back into the apple tree before gnawing away.

The red squirrel stuck with more traditional fare -- a black walnut.

A nuthatch is waiting to have a turn at the bird feeder.........it might take awhile.....

or until this gray squirrel is done gorging itself.....there has been a variety of birds coming to the feeders: cardinals, juncos, chickadees, blue jays, etc.....and quite often they all have to wait for the squirrel to finish.  

A "well-insulated" mourning dove.........

and a finch that seems to be contemplating whether or not to head South.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Snowshoe Rentals

post by Judy Spring in outdoors

Snowshoes are available for rent at Genesee County Park & Forest Interpretive Nature Center on Saturdays and Sundays from 12pm-3pm during the months of December, January, February, and March, weather permitting. Rentals are on a first come-first serve basis and must be used at the Park. $5/pair of snowshoes. For more information, call #585-344-1122. Genesee County Park & Forest, 11095 Bethany Center Rd., E. Bethany NY 14054. 

Friday, November 14, 2014 at 9:45 am

Watching the waterfowl

post by JIM NIGRO in nature, outdoors

The ballet of the honkers.....gathering speed prior to take off.

"In sync"...they just need some altitude - quickly!  

A drake and hen mallard enjoying a sunny morning on the Tonawanda.

A lone ring-necked duck in a small unnamed tributary off Old Creek Rd.

Canada geese making chatter and resting between flights

For now, their flights consist of short hops in search of grainfields. All too soon the flights will be much higher in altitude and much longer in duration, after which we won't see them again until late winter or early spring.

Thursday, November 13, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Early November pics from Genesee County Park

post by JIM NIGRO in Genesee County Park, nature, outdoors

As of last weekend there was still a splash of color at Genesee County Park & Forest, as seen along Memory Lane, the main road in the park. 

Soft morning light really enhanced the golden-bronze tint of beech leaves....and it seems that the fallen leaves weren't totally ignored.....

as some creative soul put them to good use.....

Maybe it was this wooly bear and some of his friends...they were out in number on this day.

A blue jay keeps a wary eye on Claudia and myself.

These pics are barely a week old and the scene above is already a memory. Before we know it the park will be cloaked in winter white. Hope to do some snow shoein' here this winter and if we do, I know we'll remember this sunny autumn morning.

Saturday, November 1, 2014 at 8:00 am

Musings on autumns past, present and an unsettled future

It was an October day when I walked out the front door of my grandmother's home and saw two family friends. They were sitting on the tailgate of a station wagon parked beneath an old maple. They were holding a day's limit of ringneck pheasants and the setting was enhanced by the maple's red-orange foliage.

That took place on Batavia's southside nearly sixty years ago and that was likely the moment I knew I wanted to hunt when I was older.

I'm guessing it was also around the time I began to take note of the various breeds of hunting hounds in our neck of the woods. There were sporting dogs all over the place in those years. I saw Nin Trinchera's beagles every day on my way to St. Anthony's School. And all the regulars at Kibbe Park knew "Colonel," an English setter belonging to the Ficarella family. It was a time when upland game was plentiful and hunting was as American as baseball and apple pie, and setters, spaniels and pointers seemed to be as common as the once-abundant chestnut trees.

Let me fast forward to another day in October. It's a Saturday morning in 1989. A small group of duck hunters and a pair of black labs are hunkered down among the cattails in Oxbow marsh. Decoys have been set out and the hunters make small talk waiting for the break of dawn. Someone mentioned the ongoing murmurings and rumblings being made in reference to gun owners. "Someday they're gonna take our guns," he said, referring to the powers that be. I don't know if he really believed it then. I don't know if any of us did. After all, could it have been anything more than just another bombastic threat?

Today the threat is real and very close at hand.

For decades I was a waterfowler and an avid bowhunter and in the '60s and early '70s I did a bit of ringneck hunting. In recent years I 've spent far more time in the outdoors with a camera. Still, I have pleasant memories of days spent in the marsh and in tree stands or scouring grain fields and swale hoping for pheasants to explode from cover. And I am thankful to those who took me under their wing in my earliest days afield.

And those are just a couple of reasons why I'm voting early Tuesday morning in hopes of preserving a small slice of Americana.

Friday, October 31, 2014 at 8:55 am

Batavian has close encounter with large sow black bear and her cubs

It was approximately 4 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 23rd, when Mike Corbelli experienced the encounter of a lifetime. 

A Batavia resident, Mike was archery hunting for black bear with a group of local men from Genesee and Wyoming counties. The group was hunkered down in Sterling Forest State Park in the Ramapo Mountains of Downstate New York. Their outing ran from Oct. 19th to the 25th. On Tuesday a nor'easter passing along the New England coast began permeating the area and for two days the hunters dealt with the storm's wind and rain. 

By that Thursday there was no let up and with the wind gusts toppling trees, rather than use a climbing tree stand, Mike opted to conceal himself in a fallen tree situated at the edge of a shallow ravine. As things turned out, the weathered blowdown worked good- - almost too good.

Eventually Mike saw movement off in the distance, something black appeared, moving slowly through the forest. It was a bear and moving in his direction. Then he spotted another.

Mike knocked an arrow, waiting to see if either was big enough to take. Suddenly he spotted a third bear, a large sow. It then became evident the first two were cubs. Slightly further back of this trio were two more cubs. Because it's illegal to take a bear with cubs, Mike let off on the bow string and switched modes.

"Seeing the cubs made me drop my guard," he said. "I changed perspectives, going from hunter to enthusiast."

Keeping in mind these are wild animals, he never put his bow down, instead simply switching hands, holding his bow in his right hand and using his left to take photos with his phone.

While Mike had switched modes, that wasn't the case with momma bear. She was looking for food and she and three of her offspring continued in Mike's direction with one of the cubs deciding to climb a nearby tree. The closest cub was gamboling about, playfully working its way toward Mike when momma, possibly on alert, gave the cub a hard shove with her head, possibly sending her offspring a message which said, "pay attention -- something's not right."  

By now the sow is in the lead and within five feet of Mike and he realizes he needs to do something. But what? With the ravine at his back he has nowhere to go. So, he stood up and shouted "NO" with all the authority he could muster. 

Alarmed, the sow retreated slightly -- and only slightly -- a matter of a few feet. Now definitely aware of a threat, her protective instincts kicked in as she snarled and held her ground before lowering her head and making a false charge.  

With 300 pounds of protective mother bear threatening him, it's totally understandable if Mike's pic is a tad blurry. 

After bluffing her charge, the sow ran around the tree one her cubs had climbed and tried to come at Mike from a different angle. Now it was all about survival.

Mike recalled a video by veteran bow hunter Wayne Carlton, explaining that, "a bear coming toward you is coming for one reason -- to eat. You need to make yourself bigger than the bear." ... Recalling those words Mike Corbelli raised his arms over his head in an effort to make himself appear as big as possible and then he audibly growled. That seemed to do the trick as the big sow finally turned and ran into the ravine.

In this pic you can see two of the cubs treed and another about start climbing. That black blur on the floor of the ravine and just to the right of a big tree is the sow.

Mike's hunting companions, L to R: front, Tracy Mallon, Charlie Heintz; middle, Shawn Kibler, Dick Cecere; back, Tony Davoli, Mike Hallagan, Bob Botel, Mike Corbelli. Upon seeing the video Mike took of his encounter, each of his fellow hunters expressed amazement at the turn of events, how close he was to the bears and the outcome.  

Photos and video courtesy of Mike Corbelli. Check out the video at the link below.

Video on YouTube

Thursday, October 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

Autumn pastoral: photos of the October countryside

post by JIM NIGRO in autumn streams, fall foliage, nature, outdoors

A gently rolling buckwheat field, splashes of red-orange in the hardwoods and a sky filled with blue-gray clouds -- October in Genesee County.

Downstream from the Powers Road bridge, a mirror image on a placid stretch of Tonawanda Creek. 

Dim light inside a woodlot and blue sky beyond really set off this maple's foliage.

A hint of early morning mist on Bowen Creek.

One of the many things I enjoy in autumn is seeing red maple leaves against a deep blue sky.

Hardly more than a trickle on this day, the Little Tonawanda nonetheless flows onward to its confluence with the mainstream Tonawanda.....

Further downstream fallen maple leaves blanket the shore while others are caught in a shallow riffle.

Just my opinion, but.....the spectacular hues of these crimson oak leaves underscore the brilliance of the autumn of 2014!!!

Friday, October 17, 2014 at 5:33 am

Veteran Batavia police officer scores well at Fall Festival Highland Games

It was just after 9 a.m. and Claudia and I were working our way between an already growing crowd of vendors and onlookers when we spotted Batavia Police officer Frank Klimjack. He was standing in a roped off area at the base of Bristol Mountain with several men in kilts -- some bearded, some bald and all of them about the size of NFL linemen. 

They are known as the Buffalo Heavies, so-called not so much for their size but rather for the physical contests they engage in. Officially they are the Buffalo Heavies Kilted Throwers Club. traditional Celtic athletes from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Canada. Their forte is throwing and heaving weighted objects around: they throw for height, distance and, in the case of the caber (pictured above), it's not so much the distance but accuracy -- pitching the caber forward as straight as possible.  

Frank Klimjack preparing to toss the sheaf, a straw-filled burlap bag weighing 16-18 lbs.

On this day Frank and his fellow Heavies were competing in the Bristol Mountain Fall Festival and Highland Games. The Highland Games are a series of athletic contests that originated in Scotland in the 11th Century. The events are the hammer throw, sheaf toss, caber toss, weight for distance, weight for height and weight over the bar, Braemer stone and open stone. The difference between the latter two is technique and stone weight.   

In one swift motion the sheaf is pitched upward....

and over the bar. After each round the bar is raised higher. It's kind of a last man standing deal.

Frank's interest in the Highland Games began a few years ago. "I was at Olcott Beach watching members of the Niagara Athletic Club competing when their athletic director said to me, 'you look big enough -- why don't you come out and give it a try?' A couple of weeks later at another competition they lent me a kilt and I was on my way." He fared pretty well on that first outing. "About middle of the pack," he said, "at least I wasn't at the bottom."

Frank Klimjack has moved up quite nicely since that initial outing. On this day he took second place overall. Competing in only his third full season, he is currently ranked #5 in North America in the Highland Games 45 to 49 age group.

A former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, he did a stint with the New York State Park Police before finding his niche with the Batavia PD, where he has served for the last 15 years.

Kellie Klimjack, left, watching her husband's efforts.

Nick Kahanic, Klimjack's friend and fellow "Heavy," is a world-record holder in the Braemar stone and Open stone.

Here's Nick competing in the Weight for Distance. He sent the 56-pound weight 87 feet on this try.

Bagpipers and drummers paying tribute to disabled vets. Whenever the Buffalo Heavies compete, all proceeds raised go to OASIS (Outdoor Adventures for Sacrifice in Service) a volunteer organiziation that provides sporting experiences to disabled veterans and their families free of charge. OASIS currently offers skiing, fishing, sailing, archery, ice skating, horsemanship, golf and rowing. This day's competition raised $4,500 -- awfully good considering admission was free.

This is Lou Iannone and I would venture to guess he's the sparkplug of the Buffalo Heavies. This was our first exposure to the Highland Games and we found the camaraderie between competitors evident and the athletes engaging the crowd with friendly banter as well as answering any questions onlookers may have had.

The atmosphere was festive, the scenery fantastic and with the chair lift taking an endless number of visitors leaf-peeping to the top of the mountain, the crowd was estimated at over 7,000.

The athletes were impressive, entertaining and outgoing. It was for sure a fun outing and Claudia and I look forward to attending the Highland Games again.

Monday, October 13, 2014 at 9:01 am

Mid-October seasonal photos

Daybreak along the power lines

A view from Molasses Hill Road

A chipmunk enjoys some sweet corn from our autumn decor

A gray squirrel has similar taste - except he'd prefer to eat alone.

A wagonload of pumpkins on the side of the road

This maple was so resplendant and riveting I failed to notice the cattle beneath it.

Cornstalk tassles silhouetted at dawn

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