Ducks, Dogs, and Decoys

Pintails, mallards, ring-necks, teals. From his Camden workshop to the panorama of Merrymeeting Bay, a southern boatbuilder carves out something new.

Sawdust on the floor, dozens of painted test-spots in variations of the color green, the charred smells of a woodburning tool—that’s only a fraction of what’s to be noticed here. This is Frank Middleton’s workshop in a converted barn in Camden. We’ve just maneuvered around the 36-foot hull of a lobster boat he’s been restoring. It dominates the center of the space, but the boat isn’t what this longtime boat- builder has been concentrating on lately.

On countertops that line the walls, stacked on shelves, and catching the autumn day’s light on window ledges there are whole birds and parts of them—loose feathers, heads with beaks, singular out-stretched wings—all carved from wood.

The lobster boat has been relegated to backdrop and staging area for the duck decoys Middleton is making, along with an array of decorative bird sculptures that are fit to display as fine art. A tall man with reddish hair and glasses, Middleton carves waterfowl and mourning doves, wild turkeys and quail. He has been working on a commission for a five-bird sculpture of the extinct Carolina parakeet—wooden feather by wooden feather at times—for over two years. He continues to build boats and renovate homes, but decoys and bird-sculpture commissions are his primary craft now—he’s made more than 500 decoys so far. In the barn, which is connected by an ell to the old farmhouse that he and his wife, Mary Middleton, bought a few years ago, he’s surrounded himself with the study and pursuit of wild birds.

A Gushing Sky

The workshop keeps Middleton near his family, some of whom wander in while we’re talking. Cassie, his 11-year-old daughter, is carrying a recent birthday present her father made for her: a framed carving of a single great blue heron feather. When Middleton’s son Connor, 9, notices Cassie holding the sculpture of a feather that looks light and delicate enough to be real, he dashes back to the house to retrieve his own gift from his dad, a pin-tail duck decoy. Connor holds it proudly and says he keeps the carved bird above his bed “so I can look at it at night.” “I like the green,” he adds.

There’s life and warmth at every turn at the Middleton house. Mary is in the kitchen baking scones with the youngest child, Cate. The family’s two dogs, Haley and Tripp, are alternately sleeping near the woodstove and nosing in and signaling to be let out into the backyard to run. The dogs have chocolate-colored fur with wiry white strands and tufts of white on their muzzles, and they make a striking pair. Known as Deutsch-Drahthaars, they are German hunting dogs, and Middleton says the first time he saw one of the dogs, he recalls thinking, “What is that? Now, there’s a regal-looking beast.” He’d eventually adopt one to train, and then another, figuring they would fit well into his outdoor pursuits and join him to retrieve ducks on hunts.

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Middleton says, the expectation was that he would be a doctor or lawyer. Instead, his interests were in the natural world. “I always wanted to build something,” he says. He fished with his grandmother as a child, and when he raised a Labrador retriever when he was a teenager he found that he was good at training dogs. He worked as a carpenter in Montana, earned a geology degree at a North Carolina college, and eventually started Middleton Boatworks on a rural sea island near Charleston.

Middleton’s first introduction to Maine was during a Thanksgiving visit when his younger brother was a student at Bowdoin College. The brothers went duck hunting on Merrymeeting Bay, an inland freshwater delta that’s known to be a water- fowl haven. Middleton was fascinated by the expanse of water, the tall-growing wild rice, and the impressive variety of waterfowl that the bay attracts. “Around Thanksgiving, when it starts to freeze out up north,” he says, “the sky’s just gushing birds (over Merrymeeting Bay) for one, maybe two weeks.”

After that first trip, whenever he could arrange it, returning to this part of Maine would be Middleton’s two-week fall tradition. Merrymeeting Bay gave him miles and miles to explore by water and land. The Kennebec, Androscoggin, and four smaller rivers empty into the bay on their way to the Gulf of Maine, and it contains four-mile-long Swan Island, situated between Richmond and Dresden. Along the rivers, coves, and marsh, Middleton found remnants of a classic style of hunting. He noticed, for example, that some of the old-timers hunted in locally made wooden gunning floats, built to nose through the wild rice. As he sought to improve his own gear, something didn’t seem right about the plastic duck decoys that he and many hunters released on tethers to float in the water and attract passing ducks—they didn’t fit the aesthetics of the natural scene. “You might as well float a Clorox bottle,” he says. A friend gave him a few L.L.Bean cork decoys to use, and he found that the lightweight hand-painted decoys, sold since the 1930s, were a definite improvement.

Rice Attraction

Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, Middleton’s boatbuilding company kept him busy. It had grown to 12 employees, and they were building more and larger boats. But when the economic downturn hit in the late 2000s and boat commissions fizzled, Middleton and his wife seriously began to consider moving to Maine and starting anew. If they relocated near enough to Merrymeeting Bay, Middleton thought, he could hunt all season long.

“I either needed a shrink or I needed a hobby,” Middleton says about starting to carve decoys in earnest during those lean years. He’d had a decoy-carving book since high school, and he’d once told a college art professor that he’d like to focus on decoys, to which the educator replied, “Decoys are not art.” He would later buy a few decoys made by acclaimed carver Tom Boozer in South Carolina. He says he’ll never forget the day he floated them out and successfully shot ducks over them. By then, he was certain he wanted to make his own. Boozer encourage him to try—that is, to lob off big chunks of wood and begin to create the organic shapes of a bird using a drawknife, then do the finer gouging, carving, burning, and painting. His first decoys were rough, Middleton admits, but he persisted. “This would be the one thing I could do.”

When I meet the Middletons, they are well settled into the rhythms of life in Camden. They moved to Maine in 2012, and these days, while Mary Middleton works as an accountant and the kids are in school, Frank Middleton carves and paints decoys and sculptures, often 7 to 10 hours a day, four to five days a week. “Or just 20 hours a week, because the weather’s right and the birds are here,” he admits. Before we leave the workshop, he invites photographer Peter Frank Edwards and me to join him on a duck hunt in a few weeks, in late November.

Hunt Day

We decide to stay in Camden the night before hunting so we can get an early start. First we’ll need to drive to Merrymeeting Bay together, hot coffees in hand. Middleton has scones to share and just-baked hermits: chewy cookies made with molasses, ginger, nuts, and spices. Since we woke up before three in the morning, it’s still well before sunrise when we arrive in Bowdoinham and make our way to the shore a few miles from the town landing. Temperatures are in the 20s, and the tide is incoming—“the feeding tide,” Middleton calls it. The shore mud is frosted and crunches as we walk across it in our chest-high rubber waders, layered in camouflage-pattern coats, gloves, and hats. Middleton has a headlamp on his head, and Haley is bounding along nearby.

All of us step into the boat, including Haley, who makes a graceful leap, looking as if she barely gets her paws wet. The three-year-old dog is a smart one, I’ve noticed. She stays on dry land whenever possible, and she escapes the cold in an insulated, igloo-style fort that Middleton has for her in the front of the boat. Middleton says the 60-pound dog has learned the benefits of keeping warm and dry, and “will circle a pond to get to the other side to retrieve a duck.”

The bulrushes and the wild rice stalks are spent for the season, hay-brown and fallen. We’re towing two canvas-topped gunning boxes, also known as coffin boxes, which Middleton built, each with rafts of fallen rice arranged across the top. Watertight, boxy, and large enough for one person to lie down inside (covered with the camouflaging stalks), these are to be positioned on the exposed mudbanks with a dozen or two duck decoys set nearby. They’re not boats, Middleton reminds us, and he notes that, once the tide pushes enough water in that we start to float, we’ll need to get out of the boxes—and carefully, because they’re prone to tipping over.

Middleton is reclined in his boat with his shotgun, and Peter Frank and I are in the boxes, all within yards of each other. It’s a windless morning, and I watch the starry sky from my snug coffin. My only movement is wiggling my toes—one foot is feeling especially cold and damp. It’s taken us three hours to get to a cove on the Abagadasset River—by car, by boat, and then wading in our boots to the boxes—and now we’re watching Merrymeeting awaken to a new day. In an instant, two mallards and a black duck appear and fly overhead. Middleton gets off two shots, but the angle is a tough one and no ducks fall. In the minutes after the sound of the shotgun blasts subside, I notice the sparkle of frost that has built up on my jacket. We soon see distant wisps of ducks in the sky in the dawn’s first, soft light. “That’s a ball of teal right there,” Middleton whispers across the water. And later a line of boisterous, noisy geese fly just along the tree line, honking. But no other ducks appear in close enough range to attempt a shot.

Within an hour, I feel water start to rise beneath the gunning box. Like a cradle, it begins gently rocking as the tidal flow pushes farther into the bay. As it washes in, we load back into the boat, Middleton gathers the decoys, and he ferries us back to the now sun-washed shore and the truck.

Smooth Sculling

After not getting a bird over the decoys, Middleton wants to try another approach: sculling. His wooden boat, with its sharply pointed bow, rounded bottom, narrow decks on the sides, and square stern, is crafted specifically to steadily and stealthily push through the rice. It was built of pine, oak, and cedar by Buster Prout, a legendary local maker of the Merrymeeting Bay gunning float. At 16 feet, the float is long enough for two people to hunker down inside. It is so finely made, it “looked like a gorgeous piece of wood furniture” when he bought it, Middleton says. Prout delivers the boats with the wood unfinished, so Middleton painted the interior and added an epoxy resin fiberglass to the outside to protect the white pine strips that form the hull.

This specialized craft can be run with a small motor, but it’s traditionally propelled forward using a long paddle with the handle end inside the boat. The paddle is fitted through a port in the transom and swished back and forth underwater in a shallow figure-eight motion. The idea is to advance on the wary ducks without noise. But we’re not hunting on this pass.

Middleton does the sculling while I stretch out on my back with my head tilted up to observe the birds over the Cathance River on this November morning. Overhead, ducks are flying in big arcs. They fly distantly and near, in pairs and lines, small flocks and large ones. Their flying appears distracted at times. Other times it looks purposeful, as if they know exactly where they’re going. Or the ducks disperse suddenly, startled by a bald eagle or maybe having noticed the gunning float, or us.

We try another spot or two before stopping for a hunter’s breakfast of brisket hash and eggs at the Town Landing Cafe in Bowdoinham. Finally, we use Middleton’s spotting scope on a tripod to see ducks at Green Point, a public park on a pine ridge. Flocks of mallard, pintail, merganser, and black duck are out there. While Haley sits at the base of a tree alert to a squirrel above, Middleton scans the horizon a final time and talks joy-fully about the day, even though we have no ducks for dinner—or for him to study for his next decoy or sculpture. He notes that people often don’t take the time to enjoy the geography, flora, and fauna that first attracted them to a place. “Just think,” he says with wonder, “this morning we had all of Merrymeeting to ourselves.”