Lucky Duck

A Harlequin Romance

We’d just finished our fourth and final day of heavy ditch and drainage improvements on a gnarly old sub-alpine pack trail deep in the Mt. Baker backcountry and I was in dire need of a bath.

While the rest of the crew packed up their tools and beat a hasty retreat down to the trailhead, I decided to stay up in the forest a little while longer and ferret out a proper swimming hole.

Fortunately, since there was a roaring, glacier-fed creek running over the trail right where our project area ended, I didn’t have to look far. I just crawled my way over a hulking, 20-foot-high log/root wad jam and went frog-hopping directly upstream to a spot where the turbid melt water came swirling between the boulders into a cascading terrace of deep, sun-glinted pools.

After submerging myself repeatedly in one of those brain-numbingly cold riparian jet tubs until I could no longer feel my face—or pretty much my entire body—anymore, I flopped onto a nearby alluvial outwash bed and started crawling hard on half-numb arms and tingling, corpse-blue knees toward the nearest available patch of direct sunlight.

Who knows how long I lay there defrosting my mammalian mass on the sandbar. It could have been five minutes. It could have been 40 minutes. But once I finally snapped out of it the sun was gone, forest shadows enveloped me and there was gooseflesh all over my birthday suit.

It was then—while gathering up my reeking, mud-caked work clothes to buffet myself more effectively from the conspiring elements—that I first caught sight of the duck.

He came careening out of the timber like a crazy, misfired bullet and went barreling through the air right past me, making all sorts of loud squeaky noises and flashing his trademark feather markings multiple times before finally breaking into a ridiculously steep and catastrophic-looking nose dive smack dab into the very eddy in which I’d just spin-cycled myself.

“What the quivering quacksters is a salty little surfer like you doing hanging out so high up in the mountains?” I said, addressing the cork-shaped, white-striped daredevil as he resurfaced with all his faculties intact. “I could have sworn you harlequins were primarily sea ducks who preferred to spend most of your lives flapping around down in the flatlands.”

“Eek-eek-eek,” he replied, shaking his bill chidingly at me as he promptly commenced a rather raucous round of intensified dabbling.


Turns out I was wrong. But only partially wrong.

In layman’s terms, harelquin ducks are sea-to-mountain ducks. Although they do spend their winters taking shelter along our rockiest, most wave-lashed coastal zones, once summer rolls around they migrate significantly inland to rear and raise their offspring among some of the steepest, rockiest and fastest-flowing stream courses the North Cascades have to offer.

Much like some of my kayaker/rafter friends who travel far and wide from one world-class set of Class V rapids to the next, harlequins are unabashed whitewater fanatics.

The acrobatic interloper who decided to grace me with his presence for a couple extremely entertaining and educational hours during my post-work cleansing session at the 4,200-foot level of the easternmost reaches of Whatcom County hardly proved to be an exception. 

Although I never managed to ascertain exactly how he felt about me, I will always remain tremendously grateful to him.

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