Maynard James Christensen was one of those people you knew by one name, and it wasn’t “James” or “Christensen.”
Yes, his given name is distinct enough to stand solo, but Maynard’s words, talents and passions ensured instant recognition when you heard his first name only.
Besides, you can’t imagine him as “Jim” or “James,” and “Christensen” is just common enough to blur recognition.
Maynard was my brother-in-law for several years during the 1970s and 1980s. We talked and crossed paths only occasionally since then, just enough to make me regret not doing more together before he died May 3 at age 75.
Still, we had our moments.
“Pat, let’s hunt the duck,” he said when I moved to my parents’ property on Lake Poygan near Oshkosh in November 1980 after my 5-year Navy stint. After eyeing the Remington 11-48 autoloader I borrowed from my father, Maynard said the old 12-gauge needed cleaning. He turned his shower knob to “Hot” and disassembled my shotgun.
With the water scalding and the bathroom steaming, Maynard handed me the shotgun barrel, its magazine spring, a clean rag and stiff brush.
“Scrub and rinse everything good,” he said.
Then he added, “Hot water evaporates instantly on hot metal,” perhaps sensing my worries about rust.
A minute later, as my sister fretted at the grime swirling in her bathtub, Maynard poked his head in to say, “It’s his gun, Anne.” He then walked away without further explanation. He had made his point, emphasizing “gun” to imply the importance of my task, while silently suggesting, “Leave your brother alone.”
Before first light the next morning, we slid his 16-foot Lund into a cane bed south of Boom Bay, about where Poygan ends and Lake Winneconne begins. And then we shot redheads, bluebills and ringbills as dawn became day. I marveled at his skill in spotting flocks hundreds of yards away, and instantly identifying their species by wingbeats and flight traits.
When I pointed out a bird approaching over distant canes, Maynard shook his head. “Gulls fly like this,” he said, flapping his arms while bobbing his head and knees. Then he tucked his arms tightly to his sides and jutted his hands outward from his shoulders. “Ducks fly like this,” he said, rapidly fluttering his fingers in unison.
We returned ashore before noon after the divers and mallards ceased flying down the lake, and hung our ducks on cords and lanyards tied to the boathouse’s rafters. Tossing me a drake mallard, Maynard said, “Start plucking.”
Then he sparked his salamander heater and set a large metal bucket atop it. The bucket’s water was sealed below thick canning wax, its once-white tone now stained slate-gray by duck down and pinfeathers from Maynard’s October kills.
As the wax melted, a pungent odor of wet feathers filled the boathouse.
“Smell that?” Maynard asked with an exaggerated inhale. “That’s success!”
After I finished pulling the contour and flight feathers from each duck, Maynard grabbed its neck and submerged the bird in the boiling wax. Next, he lifted and held the dripping carcass over the bucket till the wax cooled, and then slid its head through a lanyard to hang.
After the waxed duck turned as hard as a tortoise shell, Maynard cracked off the wax, gutted the duck, and proudly displayed the bare, pink carcass. “Looks good enough to sell to The Fin,” he said, chuckling at the thought of serving wild bluebills at Winneconne’s famous restaurant on the Wolf River.
Years later — after learning of Poygan landmarks like the “Piano Box,” “Hindenburg Line” and Lone Willow Island — I realized we had been hunting the same cane beds where Maynard saved two duck hunters in the pre-dawn darkness of Nov. 11, 1975.
As was Maynard’s custom, he had loaded his deep-V Lund that morning, tied a towline to his duck skiff’s bow, and navigated Poygan’s rolling whitecaps to claim his favorite spot hours before first light. He didn’t know it at the time, but the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk about 7 o’clock the previous night 300 miles to the northeast on Lake Superior.
When Maynard reached the thick cane beds and pulled into their lee shore, he kept the boat’s tall stern light illuminated to mark his claim and steer all duck-hunting competitors elsewhere. Shortly before dawn, about when he planned to set his spread of Herter’s decoys, he heard a boat approaching from Boom Bay’s public landing to the north.
Maynard couldn’t see the boat or its running lights, but he heard its engine above the wind and waves, and assumed it carried duck hunters. Then the sound ceased abruptly. Odd. He hadn’t heard the engine throttling down as the hunters neared their destination. Soon after he heard high-pitched sounds, almost like distant geese honking or swans trumpeting.
Still, he couldn’t identify the sounds, obscured as they were by gale-force winds. Then they suddenly made sense. They were desperate shouts for help. The hunters had swamped their boat when turning into a deep trough, killing their engine. And then they capsized, spilling into the water.
Maynard untied and anchored his skiff, started his boat’s 40-horse engine, and blasted off across the rollers. After spotting the dark silhouettes of two heads in the water, Maynard pulled in close. Two young men, both wearing chest waders, stood shoulder deep in the waves, screaming in panic and surrounded by loose oars, decoys, cushions and other flotsam.
Staying just beyond reach, Maynard shouted instructions to calm them so they could aid, not ruin, their rescue. Fortunately for the hunters, Maynard stood a strong 6-foot-3, providing the power and leverage to haul them over the transom to safety.
He recognized one of the soaked men as the nephew of a friend in Boom Bay, and drove them ashore. When one tried resting on land and asked Maynard to return with their truck, he told him to get up and keep walking.
“If I leave you here, you’ll die of hypothermia.”
Maynard herded the shivering, blue-lipped pair to the uncle’s home, and then returned to the lake to salvage their boat and whatever gear he found bobbing in nearby canes and distant shores.
After finally motoring home hours later, he talked mostly about never setting a decoy or firing a shot. He had gone to hunt the duck, and instead been forced to play the hero.
That last sentence is mine, not his. Maynard could tell great stories, but he left heroic talk to family and friends.
And with that he’d move on, acknowledging Dennis Biggar, Pat Wightman, and Anne and Winnie Durkin for sharing their versions of his heroism 47 years later.
Maynard Christensen, foreground, plucks ducks on Lake Poygan with his longtime friend Pat Wightman near Winneconne in October 1979. — Anne Durkin photo