“Pull up, Pete. Pull up. You’re coming in too fast.” The duck traffic controller was screaming at a Mallard that was half asleep, and not paying attention.
Everyone turned to watch. Pete was definitely coming in too fast, and at an angle that was much too steep. He wasn’t going to make it.
All the young lady ducks hid their heads under their wings. Molly was the only one that hid her head under her left wing, the others were all right winged. The young hens didn’t want to see what they knew was coming. They’d all heard the stories, and not one of them ended well.
The old men ducks just shook their heads. They’d seen it before—a young drake thinking he was better than he turned out to be. No one had ever made the flight without stopping at least once. Pahranagat Pete had told all the other Mallards that he was going to be the first. The old drakes pulled at their feathers, shook their heads, and silently watched for the crash landing they knew was coming.
Pete’s mama turned her back. She could not be witness to her son’s misadventure. He’d always been an obstinate duckling, and he had not changed since he lost his down. She thought that he might have even gotten worse. He’d never learn.
Pahranagat Pete had taken to the air from a small lake about six miles northwest of Cache Creek, British Columbia. His plan was to fly non-stop to the refuge just south of Alamo, Nevada. The flight typically takes two days—three for the old ducks—but Pete was intent on doing it in one day. No Mallard had ever accomplished the fete and lived to quack about it. Pete would be the first.
Sam, Pete’s father, had attempted this non-stop journey two years ago, and his father three years before that. Both of those drakes were at least seven, maybe eight, years old—much too old to attempt such an adventure. This 1,100 mile trip was for the young. Pete was young. At four years old he figured he was in the prime of his life. Now would be the time to prove to everyone that he was the best of the best.
Pete was the seventh hatchling of a brood of eight. Typically a Mallard hen will lay 12-13 eggs, but Pete’s mother always stopped at eight. After that first year when she had fourteen she swore she’d never put herself through that again. And at her age she figured she had the right to say when enough was enough. She was five when she laid Pete and his siblings.
It didn’t take long for Mother Mallard to realize that her seventh duckling was going to be a problem. He would never line up with the other ducklings, and was always off somewhere bobbing around with his tail feathers in the air. It was a full-time chore trying to keep up with his shenanigans. Once, she even caught him playing hooky from duck school. She quacked herself hoarse, but it never seemed to help.
Growing up, Pete had heard the story of his father’s flight, and his grandfather’s before that. It takes a strong Mallard to fly 800 miles non-stop, and a beast of a bird to make 300 miles more. His ancestors were big, strong birds. They just didn’t have the stamina. Sam had crashed 120 miles short of his destination. Grandpa Mallard fell asleep in the air and plummeted to his death, well short of the mark. His body was never found.
At the age of ten a Mallard is ancient. At the age of four he should be in his prime. This year, Pete had turned four. He was going to complete a journey that his fore-birds could not. He would bulk up on the best food, and build up his wing muscles for the long flight.
That summer of his fourth year Pahranagat Pete ate heartily, flew from dawn to dark to build up his wing muscles, and practiced staying awake well past midnight. When the first snowflake fell from the sky Pete was ready.
Many of the other Mallards had already left for their winter grounds, but Pete waited. He waited for that first good cold front. The winds that came with it would help him on his journey. He could ride the air currents to stratospheric heights and then glide for miles. He had talked to many of the older Mallards, and even discussed his ideas with several cranes and a couple of eagles. He figured his plan was flawless.
The flight south, to the border, was uneventful. He hadn’t planned on a storm front assaulting him from the west, though. Over Montana he was blown off course, and it took three hours before he got himself back onto the correct flyway. It also cost him several hundred feet in altitude. That could be a problem.
As Pete was approaching Lower Lake the sun was just beginning to peak over the mountain tops to the east. He had flown straight through the night. The bright light shining down on the mudflats at the northern end of the lake gave a false impression that the depression was full of water, when, in fact, it was not. The drought of the past two years had caused the body of water to shrink in size. From the angle of the sun, and Pete’s altitude, the lake looked as full as it had ever been. That was an error that proved to be his undoing.
Pete was more tired than he had ever been in his life. His eyelids drooped and his vision was fuzzy. All he could think about was a long rest on a still pond. Below him was that pond. He began his sharp angled descent.
“Pull up, Pete. Pull up. You’re coming in too fast.”
The frantic screaming of the duck traffic controller caused adrenaline to blast through Pete’s body. His eyes flew open, he extended his yellow feet, pulled his wings into an upward attitude to slow his speed, and braced for impact.
What an impact it was! Pete hit the ground feet first. They couldn’t hold him. He had not planned on this, so he had not exercised his leg muscles. They folded up under him and Pahranagat Pete hit the mud beak first and began to tumble. He pulled his wings in, got his head tucked under his left wing—another left winged duck—and forced his body into a ball. He tumbled and rolled, and rolled and tumbled. He looked like a lopsided bowling ball rolling across the mudflats.
The old drakes measured the skid mark. Sixty-two feet. They had never seen anything like it. Pete had left the longest, and deepest, skid mark any of them had ever seen. And, the danged duck lived through it. It was a miracle. He should have broken his neck, or at least tore off a wing. Maybe even a leg. He didn’t even ruffle a feather.
When Pete rolled to a stop he was at the water’s edge. He sat there on his butt and stared at his webbed toes, extended out in front of him. He was mud covered, tired, and hungry. But alive. He had done it. He had accomplished something that no other Mallard had. And he was alive to quack about it. But, tired won out over everything else.
Pahranagat Pete stood and waddled out into the lake—belly deep. He settled onto the smooth water, tucked his feet up under himself, closed his eyes, and fell into a deep, deep sleep. He’d tell his story tomorrow. Today he was going to sleep. He might not open his eyes for a week.