By Fred Phillips
The rest of 2013 I did not return to this swamp, I frequently made excuses not to go. But November 2014 the ducks got too thick and once more the itch became too strong. One evening I made up my mind I was going back, but this time not by myself. I called my long-time friend Johnathon to go with me. I was careful to not sound desperate for his company, but I had decided if he did not go I sure as black berry bush has thorns, was not going into that hole alone. As I suspected Johnathon agree to go after I told him of the nearly 400 wood ducks and handful of mallards that were roosting in this hole. The morning started normal, my pulse was up slightly as I started in the water, but it was a beautiful, clear cold morning. We made our way to a spot among the cattails without incident as we stood around waiting for the dawn to break. The wood ducks were already talking in amongst themselves preparing for their morning dance out of the swamp, completely oblivious to the two Browning’s, loaded and waiting to cut loose.
The time spent with a good friend waiting for legal shooting light is a sacred time, almost like church. It’s a time I look forward to and cherish. But this morning it quickly went bad like a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise left out at a church homecoming. As Johnathon and I stood in the swamp talking I was watching the reflection of the stars on the water in front of me. I could hear the sound of a distant plane which was not uncommon. But the sound slowly grew louder as the once vocal birds on the water grew quiet. I soon seen a green glow appear on the water with the reflection of the stars. I looked up and saw what appeared to be a large comet overhead traveling south in front of us. I looked at Jonathan and said, “do you see that?” He nodded slowly in agreement as the light from the comet reflected on his face. The once slow object in the sky suddenly sped up before a loud boom and the object split into and sped off. I knew the end of the world was near at this point and voiced this to Johnathon who mutually agreed as we braced for what we expected to be an explosion of brimstone and hellfire straight out of the book of Revelation. But the end never came, for us at least, A few birds that morning were not so lucky. After this incident I retired this hole. I still go sometimes and watch the wood ducks dance across the cotton candy skies as they come into roost. But as the sun sinks low and the last light of day trickles out of the trees, I know to leave the sand ridge. I know that more than ducks haunt its dark waters. As I walk the short trail out of the woods during the twilight hours of darkness, I can hear the familiar squeal of the wood ducks calling. As familiar as the sound of the wood ducks is the feeling that I’m not alone.
“The following incident was told to me while duck hunting with Fred at Ocracoke, North Carolina, in 2019. It was the basis for this series.” – Michael
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It’s long been said that “the darkest hour is just before the dawn,” and even before these words were first spoken, man has feared the darkness and what it conceals in its shadows. So for a man to have a desire to pursue a creature such as a duck (my chosen species) into the early morning darkness of a swamp, one must have the ability to, at the very least, suppress his fears with the reason that you are more likely to be killed by a snapping turtle falling from a cypress tree, than to be killed by a ghost. But I will never forget the morning that I began thinking that maybe, just maybe, a turtle could climb.
It was a nice, dark, and cold December morning with an almost full moon still hanging in the sky. One of those mornings where everything has a nice dusting of ice on it plays perfectly with the moonlight to create a white shimmer on almost everything. I started my truck, hoping for the heater to kick on while trying to get the ice off my windshield. I was nearly finished when my friend called me to say his child was sick, and he would not be able to go hunting with me that morning. I’m not going to lie, I was pretty perturbed that he waited until the last minute to call, but hey, life happens. On top of that, if I enjoy one thing, it is a good solo hunt. So, without having to worry about dragging an extra person along, I decided to set out and explore new waters by myself.
On the edge of my hometown, there is a bridge over the swamp. This bridge is positioned in the middle of a two mile long straight stretch. These things combined with a person with a desire to plant the gas pedal to the floor of a car have proven to be a deadly combination. In the year prior to this morning, six people had lost their lives in multiple different wrecks on this bridge. The majority of the wrecks occurred with the vehicle colliding with the concrete barrier of the bridge with gruesome results. Put all the facts concerning the bridge to the side; the waters around it were a legitimate wood duck paradise. For several evenings prior, I had watched hundreds of birds roost on either side of the bridge. Despite the vast quantities of birds in its waters, I never tried putting in at this bridge for some reason. If I had to guess as to a reason, I would say I just didn’t like the bridge or the fact that still frequently cars seemed to want to wreck there, and I really didn’t want to become part of the ongoing death toll. But for whatever reason, I chose this morning to be the morning that I fought my better senses and set off on an adventure. And an adventure it was.
I arrived at the bridge and spent five minutes trying to figure out where I could park with the lowest risk of catching a Buick or a Ford Taurus in my grill while I hunted. Just whenever I would get my truck positioned where I was happy, I would look and see where a car had run off the road where my truck was, or there would be pieces of a wrecked car under my truck, but eventually I settled and began the familiar task of dragging a boat with gear down the bridge right-of-way to the water. I remember cursing the guy who backed out on me as I drug my boat over the rocks and numerous pieces of different wrecked cars as I thought about how much easier it would be with two guys. After getting in my boat and getting shoved off, that’s when my mind began processing the amount of vehicle wreckage around me, which let me tell you, sitting in a boat, in the dark, surrounded by bumpers, rims, personal belongings, and even a child seat, floating in the dark waters around you…. that will make you want to get on up out of “Dodge” so to speak. So with that being said, I began my paddle into the darkness.
Like most bridges in my hometown, this bridge had on one side a path that was cut and used by people fishing from the bank. Most of the time, these paths go a short way away from the bridge, but this path was particularly long, going into the woods maybe 75 yards. As I began my paddle upstream, I took little notice of the path until I noticed movement from the corner of my eye. The kind of movement you automatically associate with a person. I immediately turned my headlamp to the path to the right of me to see who this was trying to come hunt right on top of me and when my light hit the bank, there was nothing. I don’t care who you are when you KNOW you saw someone, and then there’s no one when you look; this s EXACTLY what you are going to do… Stop for a second, say “what the….”, then you are going to paddle…. like you are a duck at the pond in the park going for the last piece of bread someone threw. So there I am, 30 mins before daylight, in the swamp paddling like my life depends on it, going upstream. My hearts racing as about every three seconds, I glance to the path beside me, and I see movement, almost as if a flash of light forming a humanoid shape before it vanishes into the woods. By this point, I know I am being pursued in a weird game of cat and mouse. It’s terrible to feel like you are being chased, and you don’t know what’s chasing you. So this is when I developed a plan to get to open water, far from this path, so whatever this is can’t get me. If it’s natural, I can hear it splashing toward me and maybe stand a chance of shooting it, but God forbid it is supernatural. I held tight to the concept I had long heard spoken that a spirit could not cross water.
So, now I have a plan; I am making a mad dash for this wide slew of cypress trees in front of me. This will put enough water between me and whatever this is. I take a second and glance at the path; yup, it’s still the same thing, something was there, and then it wasn’t. Back to paddling. By this point, I was regretting the leftover collards I decided to eat the night before, but I had to push through it, and just like that, I reached the cypress slew and found the most beautiful cypress tree I have ever seen. I tied off tight to the tree, got my gun ready, and pointed towards the now distant bank where the path and whatever this was that was chasing me was. And I waited for the longest 30 minutes of my life, I sat with my shotgun ready, every light i had pointed toward the bank and waited for one sign of movement. I was so focused on the bank I forgot the reason I put myself through this hell in the first place. As dawn broke, wood ducks filtered through the trees like falling leaves and landed around me, but still, I could not bring myself to take my sight off the bank for long enough to put one bird on my game strap.
As the sun grew higher in the sky, fully illuminating the bank, and I decided that this would be the best time to set out for my truck. I cut the rope securing myself to the tree, and this allowed me to float to the truck keeping an ever-watchful eye on the path as I passed it. Once I reached the bridge, I swore that if I could get this boat off the hill, I would never return to this bridge to find out what exactly was lurking on that path. I have since allowed the voice of reason in my head to tell me that it was a trick of the frost reflecting the moonlight or that it was simply an animal following me along the path. But deep down past my reason, I know there was something other than me there that morning, whether it be a spirit from the numerous tragedies that occurred at this spot or maybe something more sinister. Whatever was or is… it doesn’t have to worry about me coming back.
We extend our condolences to the friends and families of those who lost their lives at “The Bridge”