• Sat. Sep 24th, 2022

A hunter finds his home in a public swamp| Field and flow

ByMary M. Ward

May 4, 2022

I was a mess when I first set foot there. Looking at Princeton Marsh, a 1,200-acre Iowa Wildlife Management Area connected to a wide swath of federal lowlands where the Wapsipinicon River empties into the Mississippi, anyone else would have seen a idyllic hunting spot. But to my 13-year-old brain, it felt like the dark side of the moon.

Like many teenagers, I was physically awkward, socially desperate, and angry with my father. The last of these was uncharted territory for me. Having idolized the man who raised me and my sister so kindly, I was shocked that he decided to move the family from my happy childhood home of Madison, Wisconsin to Davenport, Iowa. All I knew of Iowa was that it wasn’t the home of the Green Bay Packers, or the grandparents and cousins ​​my world revolved around, or the family farm where I was learning to hunt.

The author with his very first male, taken from the family farm in Wisconsin, before moving. Courtesy of Scott Bestul

We lived in a neighborhood full of kids my age, and every other weekend we made the short drive to see my grandparents, who lived near the 640-acre property owned by my great-grandfather. -dad. I had learned to hunt and fish on this piece of woods in central Wisconsin crossed by streams and dotted with ponds. The year before Dad moved us out, I had killed my first white-tailed deer on the first day of my life as a deer hunter, surrounded by congratulating uncles and cousins. As an adopted child, I had always struggled with the feeling of being a stranger, but that day I felt a sense of belonging that I barely knew before.

The new kid in a new town

Then we moved to a place that I hated on principle. To me, the town seemed dirty, the neighbors hostile and the girls (an important consideration at the time) all snobby. To cement the deal, I was thrown into the bathroom of my new school on my first day by some badass who shook me for all the cash I had on me – a dollar. I plunged into a months-long period of skipping class, pretending to be sick, and hanging out with the toughest kids I could find. And just to make sure my parents were careful, I pushed my dad’s biggest pet peeve by growing my hair long. He tried to ignore me for weeks but finally drove me to the hairdresser. I pouted all the way home, and when we got there, dad grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “It’s just a haircut, damn it!” It was the first and only time I remember my father swearing.

No one in my family had even heard of anxiety or depression – it would take me years to recognize them myself – but dad offered me the only therapy he knew: he took me to Princeton Marsh on the opening day of the pheasant season. Baron, our young golden retriever, followed, and the three of us chased a rooster that got up from a grassy ditch and headed for a standing cornfield. I shouldered my Remington Model 1100, which was almost as long as I was tall, and dropped the bird. I hit another one later that day, and when we got home mom took a picture of me, the dog, and the birds. She kept the photo for years, probably because it was the only one from that time when I was smiling.

For the rest of my teenage years, the Princeton Swamp was my favorite hunting spot. It had the usual drawbacks of public land – trash in the parking lots and shooting signs and fellow hunters who would happily sweep your trees – but the best parts of the river bottom could only be reached by a great hike, and these places felt like mine alone. In my senior year of high school, I scored my first archery buck, a nice 8-pointer that ran past the explosion I was hiding in and stopped to sniff a rag at 10 meters. There were other hard-earned pheasants, as well as the first companies of bobwhite quail I had ever seen, and the occasional wood duck or mallard duck.

Young Scott Bestul with dog and pheasants
The author at 13, with his golden retriever, Baron, and pheasants taken from the Princeton swamp. Courtesy of Scott Bestul

And there was no shortage of chess to learn from. One morning in late October, a rut-drunk buck came in to check out a scratch line near my stand, and I shot an arrow at his back. He was still stamping in the dirt when my second blow went under his stomach. He was looking straight at me when my third round hit a skinny birch tree covering his chest in the center that I hadn’t noticed. As the buck turned to leave, I cast a pathetic Hail Mary, emptying my quiver for the only time in 45 years of bowhunting.

One snowy November morning on a solo hunt, I spent the better part of an hour belly-crawling towards a herd of mallards feeding on a backwater pond, which turned out to be a nice spread of lures. But my dud had to be rescued by helicopter from the depths of the swamp after a friend and I got hopelessly lost shooting through potholes.

Back at the Shelter

By the time I graduated from high school, I had spent hundreds of hours at the bottom of this sprawling river and probably knew it as well as anyone. Yet when it came time to go to college, my radar pointed north to my ancestral home, and I headed to a university in Wisconsin that promised to make me a wildlife biologist. or a game warden.

I thought I left Iowa behind, but the kid who moved there at 13 hadn’t matured much in five years. Still painfully shy and unsure how to handle the freedom of adulthood, I failed spectacularly in my first semester, and by January I was back in Davenport. My mother, a picky German who considered wasting money one of life’s greatest sins, was suddenly bereft of sympathy when she saw my college report card riddled with Ds, Fs, and incompletes. “You’re going to get a job immediately and start paying me rent next month,” she said.

I did, but all the while I was surrounded by an unpleasant fog that refused to dissipate. When I wasn’t working, I confined myself to the sofa, where even the prospect of hunting couldn’t thrill me. “I don’t know what’s happening to you,” my mother once said to me, gently stroking my hair. “But you have to get out of here once in a while.”

I started taking long drives in the countryside on weekends, the same golden retriever who had gutted and retrieved my first pheasant – and now, apparently, my only real friend – sitting happily in the back seat. On one such trip, a sign caught my eye. I hadn’t expected it, but I had driven less than a mile from Princeton Marsh. The car seemed to steer itself, past the same bullet-riddled signs to the parking lot where I had parked to begin so many of my previous hunts.

The Burlington Northern railroad tracks, parallel to the Mississippi, bisected the hunting area, and Baron and I walked them now, with the late winter sun hanging above the treetops. The rails took us past the wooden finger where I had snagged a rack in a river birch and missed a buck four times, then into sight of the grassy quagmire that had hidden my first cock pheasant. In the distance, I could see the outlines of another parking lot, where the rescue helicopter had landed and I had jumped out into a crowd of sheriff’s deputies, and into my father’s relieved embrace.

For the first time in months, I felt the contractions of a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. I simply stood and breathed, letting the familiar swamp air fill my lungs. The railroad stretched out to the horizon, across the swamp and into territory as unknown to me as my own future. Baron continued to follow the tracks, his yellow tail feathers wagging, but when he turned to watch me, I called him back to my side. “Sorry, mate,” I said, but right now I needed to stay a little longer in a place where I felt happy in this world.