Just as thousands of shorebirds banking in formation are a sure sign of spring, massive “V’s” of crane passing overhead are a harbinger of fall.
Prehistoric birds that date back more than 2.5 million years, cranes have a wingspan over seven feet and can weight more than 10 pounds, but it is their unique loud rolling “rrr’s” sound that most catches our attention.
Yet it is a brief entry in our duck cabin journals regarding a crane of a different sort that highlights one of the most famous moments in our tenure on the banks of Pete Dahl slough.
Mind you that the “logs” of our adventures at Pete Dahl began with the cabin itself, built in 1959, and they now number over 1,700 pages with some 3,200 entries by more than 500 people.
The date was September 27, 1959, and it was my mother, Anita Shellhorn, that penned of a day that will live in Pete Dahl infamy.
We had motored down to the cabin with an eye doctor named Harrison Leer. He came to Cordova each fall to put on a clinic, and then have a jolly good time chasing ducks with my father Don Shellhorn and friend Kenny Van Brocklin.
Leer was born and raised in Cordova and graduated from Cordova High School as valedictorian in 1936. He went on earn a degree in ophthalmology at the University of Oregon, and eventually set up shop in Juneau, while traveling about southeastern Alaska.
Truth be told, duck hunting was just an excuse for a rollicking good time, of which Leer was a master. In fact, he specialized in verbal reparte, and even looked a little like Johnny Carlson of TV Late Night Show fame.
Anyhow, it was blue bird weather all weekend, and hunting was very slow. Dad decided we should run over to Tiedeman, about a 20-minute ride, for the evening shoot.
With the tide falling, Dad opted to stay with our little 14-foot boat, while Leer and I went jump shooting.
We picked up a few ducks, and on the way back, with the sun setting near Pt. Whitshed, blasted without success at a flock of pintails that went zipping by.
To our surprise, when we reached the boat, Dad had company. It was a Fish and Wildlife protection officer named Crane.
Without any preliminaries, he asked: “Which one of you shot?”
Oh boy. I knew Leer saw his opening. He pointed to me and said, “He did.” Startled, I pointed back and said, “He did.”
Crane was quick to the draw, and said “OK, that’s it, you’re both under arrest for shooting after hours.”
Then Dad hopped in. “Wait a minute. You can’t arrest him. He doesn’t have a license,” he said pointing at me.
“What?” exclaimed Crane. “That’s another violation.”
Dad, with sparks now flying out his pipe, which was always stuffed with Half and Half, gritted his teeth and said, “He doesn’t need one, he’s only 15.”
“Well, in that case,” said Crane, “You’re under arrest.”
Ah ha. Guilt by proxy.
Back then the flats were a vast grassy plan packed with hunters, and all around us, from Eyak to Walhalla, the air was full of the sound of shotguns blazing away.
Leer couldn’t be left out of this exchange.
“You’re going to have to talk a little louder,” he hollered. “There’s so much shooting I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
Crane had enough. “That’s it. Give me your shotguns and ducks. You are under arrest, and you will have to report to court when you get back to town.”
So back we headed to the cabin. By then the sun had definitely set, but I could see Leer and Dad laughing as I ran the boat.
Why, this might be the best hunt ever.
Once we arrived at the cabin, word of the bust spread to the other three cabins. Soon our 16 foot by 24 foot shack was packed with hunters, inspired by liquid reinforcements, expressing their dismay.
In fact, such was their consternation it was decided to show Crane what shooting after hours was all about by lining the banks to blaze away at the full moon. It was quite spectacular, with flames like roman candles shooting out of darkened barrels.
The next day we headed back to town.
Back then justice was swift and exacting.
We appeared before District Magistrate Todd Moon on Tuesday at 1 p.m. I remember it because I gained some notoriety for having to skip 5th period algebra to go to court.
Crane was there. Leer was surprisingly contrite. Dad was stoic. The charges were read, and Moon asked the duo if they had anything to say. Both plead not guilty. With no further discussion, Moon responded with, “Guilty. $25 fine suspended, license forfeited for 30 days,” and then, with a slam of the gavel, “Case closed.”
Mom had summarized the events in the log before we left the cabin: “Disastrous hunt on Sat. Eve at 5:30 Game Warden picks up the boys – shooting after dark!!! Lose guns and birds and must go to court on Tuesday at 1 P.M. No rhyme nor reason for any of this. Mr. Crane a s_ _t heel from way back. Sunday rather sad – so sorry please. Bag – Leer – 7, 3 took by Schmill, Dick – 4, Don – 3. Sad state of affairs — Anita”
And Go Dad – he became my retriever for the rest of the season.