The Wolfe Island Incident

A Story of Duck Hunting, History, and International Intrigue


Photo © Austin Holmes

By Chuck Petrie

Standing on the deck of the car ferry, watching the skyline of Kingston, Ontario, recede in the distance, the most noticeable feature I see on the horizon is Fort Henry. Perched on top of a hill on prominent Point Henry, the fort was built by the British after the War of 1812, supposedly to prevent marauding Americans from invading Canada. I ask fellow Yankee Steve Smith, who is standing on the deck with me and admiring the fortifications, whether an early-19th-century American man-o'-war could elevate its cannons high enough to bombard the towering stone ramparts.

"Doubt it," says Steve, editor of The Retriever Journal and a student of military history. "An attack from Lake Ontario would have been a disaster. The cannons on the south ramparts would have ripped an American fleet apart. But the British weren't expecting an assault from the lake. That's why they placed most of their cannons on the north walls, where they expected we would flank the fort and attack by land." Interesting. This region was once a staging area for British troops defending colonial Canada. Today it's a staging area for thousands of waterfowl, and that's why a handful of us Americans are here, to invade Ontario's Wolfe Island, the largest of the fabled Thousand Islands, in our own flanking maneuver on huge flocks of mallards, black ducks, and teal.

The St. Lawrence River begins here, on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, where the Great Lakes' outflow pours toward the Atlantic, squeezing itself around a maze of islands. The famous Thousand Island region begins here, too, and runs some 40 miles downstream, where, in some spots, the river spans a channel up to seven miles wide. The northern bank lies in the province of Ontario, the southern bank in the state of New York. Scattered in between are more than 1,800 islands, some considered large and miles in length, others only small patches of bedrock big enough to accommodate a duck blind. The islands, depending on which side of the border they lie, are either in Canadian or U.S. waters.

Today, some of the larger islands are sites of state parks, farms, golf courses, and even whole towns. The Thousand Island region has a compelling history-or histories, depending on whom (a Canadian or an American) interpreted and recorded the historical accounts. According to one Canadian narrative, "The reputation for energetic piracy in the Thousand Islands may well have begun during this [War of 1812] period. American ships would lurk in the many hiding places among the islands, attack supply ships, and disrupt the supply of Upper Canada's capital York (now Toronto). . . .When the War of 1812 ended, Britain decided that fortifying the Thousand Islands region was indeed vital to protecting her interests in Canada. One solution was the construction of Fort Henry, which was completed in 1836. In addition, canals were built to bypass the St. Lawrence and her 'pirates.' " Pirates?

Before sunup the next morning I'm sitting in a comfy box blind in a wooded cove on Wolfe Island's southern shore. Donald "Dem" Rogers, Steve, and I listen to a chorus of contented mallard talk and melodic pintail whistles drifting in from the inky blackness and quiet water in front of us. It sounds as if an entire regiment of waterfowl is massed out there. But . . . no wind. A full moon is finally setting. Not good duck hunting weather. To our left, less than a mile away, I can see shore lights on the New York side of the river. Two other members of our party, Ron Otto-our guide and the proprietor of the historic Brown's Bay Inn, where we are bivouacked during our island encampment-and Bob Cove, president of Kent Cartridge Company, our host on this trip, are wading into the rock-strewn bay, placing the decoys.

Steve, Dem, and I get our gear ready for the expected frontal assault at dawn. Over a cup of Thermos coffee, I ask Dem, a Canadian and chairman of the board at Kent Cartridge, about this pirate thing.

"Oh, sure," he says. "American pirates used to raid our shipping lanes here during the War of 1812. Most Americans don't know it, but there was a real threat of Canada's annexation by the United States at that time."

"Well," I reply, "we didn't have much of a navy back then. I think, historically, we Americans prefer to refer to those pirates as privateers who conducted military depredations in the interests of the United States."

"Whatever," Dem chuckles. "And whatever we lost to your 'privateers' we more than made up for during America's period of Prohibition in the 1920s and '30s. See how close we are to New York? A lot of the islanders here got rich importing good Canadian whisky into your country by boat at night."

"That would actually make them smugglers, wouldn't it?" Steve asks sardonically.

"We prefer to think of them as nocturnal entrepreneurs, sort of like you Yanks refer to your pirates as privateers." Touché.

The lights from New York twinkle out as shooting light arrives. In the false dawn we see silhouettes of squads, platoons, whole companies of ducks trading across the gray water, all well out of range. These were patrols, we figured, trying to draw our fire. Finally, a lone black duck locks up and floats toward our decoys. Steve takes out the intruding scout with a quick shot from his 16-gauge stacktube. "Nice work," I chide Steve, whom I've known for two decades, "but it was coming in on my side of the blind. Pretty rude of you to shoot it."

He mutters something about a guaranteed one-shot kill by him-instead of a probable salvo from me-not giving away our position, when a waft of wind comes up, quartering off the cove and into our faces, portending real trouble.

"Bad news," moans Ron, standing beside our blind with his huge yellow Lab, Fritz. "The weatherman said no wind until later in the day. I'm afraid this is going to cut us off for the rest of the morning." It does. C'est la vie. But the wind works for two other outdoor scribes in our detachment. Nick Sisley and John Taylor are entrenched on a point on the other side of the cove, and we hear periodic skirmishing fire from that direction as we pick up the blocks and abandon our position. We'll make an orderly retreat to Brown's Bay Inn for breakfast and a nap.

On the way back to headquarters, though, Ron gives us a daylight reconnaissance ride to show us some of the surrounding shores and countryside and to fill us in on the rich waterfowling history of Wolfe Island. "Wolfe Island, at 21 miles long and 7 1/2 miles wide at it widest point, is the largest of the Thousand Islands," Ron says as he steers his Tahoe past cornfields, pastures, and sheltered bays and coves. "It's been a waterfowling destination for both Americans and Canadians for more than a hundred years. Hunters first came here and stayed with farming families, and later bought land and built their own hunt clubs. The farmers became their guides and also started carving decoys. Some of the best carvers in this part of the country come from the islands. Several private hunt clubs still remain, and the number of birds that stage here is phenomenal. Lots of dabblers early in the season, like now, and later in October, big flocks of bluebills visit the islands. I have 32 blinds set up all over Wolfe, so I have plenty of places to hunt," he says, pulling off a macadam highway onto a gravel road. "I'll show you my newest piece of property up here." We drive a half a mile past a few shoreline cabins onto a grassy point that quickly reveals a shallow, rocky beach. About a thousand mallards that had been roosting there, surprised by our approach, flush within gun range. Our jaws drop. "Not a bad spot, eh?" Ron remarks.

Later that afternoon, the wind dies down again, but, undaunted, we set up an ambush site in a blind on a small inland pond. With Steve and me is Kirk Elliott, the Canadian sales manager for Kent Cartridge. We save the day by downing a few wood ducks with barrages of Kent's Tungsten Matrix ammo, and then head back to camp for chow call.

Before dinner, we relax in the inn's living room, enjoying a cocktail from the bar. The inn itself, once a legendary duck club, is part of the island's waterfowling heritage. Ron and his wife, Heather, purchased and refurbished the 100-year-old facility several years ago and opened it to the hunting public. His staff includes a chef who, we'll soon discover, doesn't serve MRE's or C Rations, but prepares blockbuster cuisine every evening (tonight it will be broiled Atlantic salmon with an eclectic mix of steamed vegetables and rice pilaf, accompanied by a properly chilled vintage Chardonnay, followed by home-made cheesecake topped with blueberries for dessert).

While enjoying an all-American martini, I'm leafing through a local history book I find on a coffee table. "Hmmm. Dem," I inquire, "it says here that during the American Revolution, a British patrol kept watch on Wolfe Island to help British Empire Loyalists-that's Loyalists spelled with a capital 'L'-pass through Canada. Some of these Loyalist refugees became settlers on the island. That right?"

"Yes," says Dem, who's sipping a Canadian rye whisky, "the Loyalists remained faithful to the King and the British Empire, and preferred to emigrate to Canada rather than stay in the . . . colonies." "Oh," I snicker, "those guys. We called them defectors, or tories, spelled with a small 't.' " Zing!

Orion is still visible in the quickly fading night sky as we settle into another box blind the next morning. We're on the north shore this time, overlooking a large bay rimmed with bulrush. In front of us, inside of where the bulrush bed begins is a swath of open water 30 yards wide. It's there that Ron is deploying the decoy spread. Bob Cove, Steve, and I are looking over the bay in the nascent dawn. Unlike the previous morning, we hear no ducks. We don't see any trading in the gloaming, either.

"Don't worry," says Ron as he returns to the blind with Fritz. "This bay will fill up with ducks pretty soon." As Ron predicted, the ducks start flying after another 15-minute lull. First a few singles, then small flocks start appearing over the bay. Mostly mallards. And those that eye our decoys begin cupping into us after a swing or two over the bulrush. We pick our shots on singles and doubles, and hold our breath as flocks of a dozen or more circle cautiously before luffing down into shooting range. I easily keep myself busy shooting ducks in front of me as well as those coming in on Steve's side of the blind. We all miss our share, but Fritz is kept busy for an hour or more picking up the casualties. He's a huge Lab, probably 120 pounds, but all business, even if he's not paced like a field trial rocket.

We decide to hold off and shoot the rest of our limits later in the afternoon. Besides, breakfast is waiting back at the inn, and we have an early afternoon pheasant hunt scheduled. This grueling itinerary precludes a nap, of course, but in battle you do what you have to do.

In the late afternoon, Steve and I hop on an amphibious assault vehicle (Argo) and head into yet another shooting location with one of Ron's guides. We grind to the front lines across at least two miles of marsh trail winding through a head-high valley of cattails. Arriving at the blind, built on stilts and overlooking a 30-foot-wide creek through the cattails, I walk up the wooden stairs and look over the marsh. A flock of about 90 green-winged teal courses by 100 yards away. Lots of other ducks-mallards, wood ducks, and pintails-are working in the wind that has come up, swaying the green cattail stalks and portending what could become a successful afternoon.

Our only problem, the guide tells us, is that we have to drop our birds in the creek, not in the nearly impenetrable mass of cattails on either side of it. Steve drops his first bird, a drake mallard, 20 yards inside the jungle on the other side of the creek. Fritz, who has decided to join us for the afternoon hunt, swims the stream and slowly disappears, plowing into the thick green jungle.

A mixed flock of about a dozen mallards and black ducks starts to work our small decoy spread, so we hunker down and let Fritz go about his business. The ducks are high and they circle and circle, only dropping down a few feet on each pass. On about their eighth nerve-wracking pass, they level off above the ribbon of water and come upwind, left to right in front of us, led by an unsuspecting black duck. They don't cup up, but they are over the decoys, and we raise up and shoot. The sound of our guns is followed by a Plop!, and a second later another resounding Plop! as two mallards crash on the water.

A short while later, Steve ices a downwind wood duck, and, within minutes, I fold a greenwing into the narrow band of water in front of us. Our guide wades out and picks up the ducks. Steve and I congratulate each other on our now-precise shooting, reload, and wait for the next round of action. We chat. We eat a candy bar. We each drop another mallard in the creek. We realize it's been about a half hour since we last saw Fritz. We also decide we've shot enough ducks, so we begin packing up to go look for the Lab. As we're about to exit the blind, we hear a commotion across the creek. A crippled drake mallard comes flopping out of the cattails into the water, Fritz right behind it. In two quick lunges, the dog has the bird in its huge jaws and is swimming toward us.

"That's absolutely remarkable," Steve says in awe. "He worked that bird through that thick stuff all this time, and he finally got it."

We all praise Fritz, who shrugs it off as all in a day's work, and head back to the inn. Once we return to Brown's Bay, I'm telling Bob about Fritz's remarkable retrieve, when I realize I haven't seen Dem all day. "Where did he go?" I ask Bob.

"Dem had to head back to Toronto this morning on business," says Bob, "but he gave me this message for you. He said, 'tell Chuck I said good-bye, and also tell him morillon à dos blanc.'" "That would be French, right?" I reply.

"Yeah," says Bob,"and Dem said that's probably how you'd be pronouncing 'canvasback' today if the British hadn't helped the American colonists during the French and Indian War-as Americans call it, or the Seven Years War as the Europeans call it- which ended French expansion in North America." C'est la guerre . . . and Ouch! With a capital 'O.'


DU Canada and Wolfe Island

Wolfe Island's 33,000 acres are primarily devoted to mixed agriculture. DU Canada has invested in excess of $330,000 there over the years to protect and enhance both coastal and inland waterfowl habitat. Some of DU Canada's projects on the island include the LaSalle Marsh Project, the Day Project, and the Bayfield Bay Project. Restoration and enhancement activities on these projects included establishing earthen dikes and water-control structures, planting dense nesting cover in adjacent fields, and acquiring coastal marsh acreage to ensure its conservation. DU has also worked to increase conservation tillage on the island. During the last four years, more than 760 acres on the island have been converted to zero tillage, reducing erosion and sedimentation in wetlands adjacent to agricultural fields.