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The Living Was Easy in a Frozen Cornfield of Central Wyoming

By: Randy Tucker

The headlights blinded me briefly, just a second or two, but that made all the difference. I was taking a second lap around Washington Park in Laramie, Wyoming on a crisp, high-altitude September night when the headlights of an oncoming truck took my gaze off the path ahead. In that instant I stepped on a rock thrown off a nearby drainage dike. I went one way, my leg another, and my right knee took an even more unnatural turn.

Hitting the ground at running speed in the dark isn’t recommended for anyone, especially somebody with a bad knee that had suddenly gotten much worse. The impact tore a hole in my sweatshirt, gave me a little road rash down my left side, and left me stunned on the curb.

Limping home a few minutes later, the half-mile back to the dorm seemed an eternity.

The evaluation back home over Thanksgiving sent me under the knife on the day after New Years.

It looked like I would miss most or all of the autumn hunting and fishing seasons. The onrushing Wyoming winter didn’t help.

In spite of one of the worst winters in Cowboy State history, a bad knee and recovering from surgery, I still had a memorable waterfowl season.

My dad planted corn in the 30-acre field north of the house, back in May. We’d done it a few times before. Alternating corn for a couple of years and five years of alfalfa is a natural way to infuse nitrogen back into the soil.

We planned on harvesting the corn in early October, but a freak, early season snowstorm rolled through in the middle of September, dumping 14 inches of snow on the ground just a few days after my jogging mishap 225 miles away. The snow remained until late April.

We couldn’t harvest the corn with the snow so deep; combines don’t do well in snow, no matter how packed it is.

What does thrive in conditions like this are ducks, literally thousands of ducks.

In most years the waterfowl hunting season west of Ocean Lake ends during the first week in January, but that year the Wyoming Game and Fish Department allowed us to hunt as long as the birds flocked to the corn field.

A few phone calls from Laramie back to the farm had my parents telling me of the situation with the standing corn. It seemed a little out of the ordinary to me, and it certainly was.

Game wardens came out and gave us a couple of interesting gadgets to try in ridding the field of ducks.

One, we called a “duck cracker.” It was a large firecracker, along the lines of an M-80 for those of you who shared the same dangerous teenage years that my friends and I did.

The plan was to weave these firecrackers into a slow burning fuse that set off the explosives every five to 10 minutes.  The warden suggested different intervals or the birds would just get used to the explosions.

They got used to them anyway.

The other was a 12-gauge “star shell.” You pointed your shotgun towards the birds, pulled the trigger and a flare fired out about 250 yards before exploding like one of those big tube fireworks.

The birds weren’t impressed by the crackers, but the star shell got their attention every time.

I arrived home from Laramie, battling drifts the entire final 25 miles to the farm from Shoshoni.  As I turned up the lane I found a drift my 78’ Ford Fairmont couldn’t tackle. As I stalled out, the lights of my dad’s International tractor came on a hundred yards up the lane. He had been waiting for me.

He pulled up, tossed a chain out of the cab and told me to hook up.  I crawled into a drift, cleared a good spot on the front of the car and tied the chain in place. I hooked the other end to the tractor and he towed me back to the yard outside the house.

We stayed there for three days, just going outside to feed and water the livestock.

Just before Christmas I told him I wanted to see how many birds were in the field. I put a star shell in my 12-gauge Iver Johnson and climbed gingerly into the back of our 4x4 ¾ ton GMC.

Dad drove slowly up the lane, stopped the truck, pointed to the northwest and said, “Let it go out there.”

My knee was in bad shape just 10 days before surgery, but I took aim, pulled the trigger and fell flat on my rear end as my feet slipped out from under me on the ice underneath the hay littering the truck bed.

As I got up I spotted clouds, yes, clouds of green headed mallard drakes spiraling towards the sky. “Take a shot,” dad yelled.

I reloaded the single shot Iver, and aimed for one bird amongst the thousands circling in front of me.  The shot rang out and seven birds hit the cornfield. We walked out in the rows to retrieve them. The birds were easy to spot against the bright white backdrop of snow and yellow corn stalks.

By the end of the season, we had dozens of birds in the freezer. I tired of eating ducks, but we had access to a smoker in Laramie and many of them ended up there.

They were very popular at parties, aside from the occasional lead shot someone bit into. It was years before the steel waterfowl mandate. Biting into shot was annoying, not a trip to the dentist as it is today.

As my knee healed I was able to walk more easily. I brought a few friends home on weekends from Laramie just to hunt the cornfield. We hunted until April, when dad finally combined the corn.

There wasn’t much left of it. The ducks ferried around on their stomachs, leaving lines in the snow, almost like they were swimming and ate nearly every cob clean of corn.

It was a lesson in survival for our feathered northern friends, friends who didn’t continue on south that year, but stayed where the living was easy in a frozen cornfield on the windswept foothills of central Wyoming.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

 
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