North Dakota gives waterfowlers a sneak peak of winter
Sleet pellets rattled off cold-stiffened jackets and hats and clattered against the sides of the canoe as we paddled the decoy/blinds/gear-packed vessel over choppy water toward our destination somewhere out there in the darkness.
In the absolute blackness that envelopes North Dakota’s prairie at night when it’s wrapped in low, thick, pregnant-with-precipitation clouds, we were pretty much navigating by dead reckoning. But there were no exigent reasons for concern; this was a route the three of us had travelled many times over many years and imagined in daydreams many more. Still, it seemed somehow different.
From my position in the bow, I stopped paddling, switched on the headlamp fit atop the oiled/waxed canvas Filson wildfowl hat and swung my head to the stern, toward the man who gifted me that already well-used hat some 15 or so hunting seasons ago and the long-legged black Labrador retriever with glistening caramel eyes sitting quietly on her haunches in front of him.
The weak light cut through the misty off-white haze and illuminated flecks of bright-white sleet on both. But it was another color that surprisingly caught my attention - the gray of my friend’s beard and gray/white hairs rimming the muzzle of Bella, his Lab.
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“What’s up? Something wrong? It’s only 27 degrees. Your Texas blood too thin for this?” Mike Furtman asked, smiling.
I’d turned to ask if he thought we should track a bit more to starboard and, honestly, to take a short break from the muscle-burning work of paddling. Instead, looking at my friend and his dog, something else came to my mind and leapt out of my mouth, seemingly unbidden.
“Winter’s coming, Mike.”
He laughed and shook his head the way you’d expect a native and lifelong resident of Duluth, Minnesota, to react when some who has spent his entire life on Texas/Louisiana Gulf Coast makes a comment about that particular season.
“Yeah, it’s coming. But it’s not here yet,” he said, digging his paddle into the roiled waters that morning earlier this month. “Let’s go. We’re already late.”
He was right about being late.
By the time we paddled to our destination - an island in a sprawling natural wetland - the sleet had stopped and the black sky lightened to a dull gray. Shooting time was on us. After an extended consultation - OK, argument - over the best place to set up given the wind direction and other considerations, we scrambled to unload the canoe, set the mixed spread of duck and goose decoys, assemble our layout blinds and get set for the first morning of what would be a week of hunting waterfowl on North Dakota’s prairie pothole region.
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All the while, Bella mostly sat on her haunches on the gravel and sand shoreline, head tilted skyward, ears and nose working, focusing on the seamless expanse and sky and water and the whispering sounds of working wings overhead.
She understood what was afoot. And she was clearly relishing it. This was, after all, her eleventh hunting season on the prairie.
For Mike and me, it was more than twice that long; we have been coming to this prairie country to hunt waterfowl together for a quarter century or so. Two men born two months apart in very disparate parts of the country who have forged a deep, lasting 30-plus-year friendship built on a shared profession, interests and many other things but cemented most completely by our passion for and connections to wildfowl, wildfowling, wetlands and the wild places they are found.
The North Dakota prairie and its waterfowling have been touchstones of this relationship. And with good reason. The landscape, formed when the great glaciers of the most recent Ice Age receded 10,000 years ago, is a seemingly endless reach of slightly rolling prairie pockmarked by tens of thousands of potholes. Wetlands. Some large enough to rightfully be called lakes. Some moderately-sized sloughs. Many small depressions, some as small as a room and others a few acres at most. Some are ephemeral, holding water only in wet years. Others hold water in all but the worst droughts.
Those wetlands and the prairie’s native grasslands are an incredible engine of wildfowl production. The prairie pothole region of the northern plains is rightfully known as the “duck factory,” where most species of ducks in North America - and many shorebirds and other wetland-dependent birds - come each spring and summer to mate, nest and raise their young. Its wetlands, which produce stunning abundance of aquatic vegetation such as sago pondweed, also serve as staging and stopover for wildfowl moving south each autumn from Canada’s prairies, boreal forest and arctic nesting grounds.
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The region can hold tremendous numbers and variety of waterfowl. And it also holds tremendous opportunities for waterfowlers.
Thousands of tracts of public land, many of them Waterfowl Production Areas bought with money generated through sale of the federal “duck stamp” all waterfowl hunters 16 and older are annually required to possess, are open to hunting. So, too, are tens of thousands of acres of private land annually leased by North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department. And many private landowners in the state are agreeable to allowing hunters to pursue waterfowl on their lands.
The result is a wonderland for waterfowlers willing to invest the time and effort - and have the equipment - it takes to mount an effective freelance quest for the ducks and geese that gather on this amazing, rich landscape.
And that’s just what Mike Furtman and I have done each first week of October for going on three decades.
For the past 11, Bella has shared that week with us.
She had big paws to fill. Saint Wigeon’s.
For almost a decade, Wigeon was our canine partner afield, and I sincerely believed no retriever could ever be her equal. I watched in awe as Mike and his Wigeon worked together on our hunts on the prairie. I saw Wigeon made retrieves that were simply and utterly unbelievable. Her temperament, manners and behavior were as even and agreeable as her heart and talents were huge. And when she passed unexpectedly one summer day, victim of a fast-spreading cancer, I wept on the phone with Mike. There could never be another Saint Wigeon.
There can be no other Bella, either. Over the past decade, I’ve watched Bella become Wigeon’s equal in most things and better in many. No retriever I’ve ever hunted with has been more focused, charged harder, swam stronger, had more stamina and smarts and just plain hunting instinct. I have seen her do incredible things. Just as important, she has been as fine and enjoyable and vitally important companion in the field as her human partner. Being blessed to spend time afield with such a pair is a rare and precious thing, the value of which can’t be understood by anyone other than other hunters.
So the three of us were on the prairie, again. And it was good. But it was different. We - all three of us - were different.
When Mike and I began hunting together, we were barely middle-age. We were like Labs in the summer of their lives, on fire with enthusiasm and undaunted by the physical challenges freelance waterfowl demands. We hunted hard and smart. It paid off in some spectacular experiences.
The experiences are still spectacular. We had so many earlier this month, watching as mallards and wigeon, gadwall, pintail and canvasbacks, teal and Canada geese turned to our calls and came sweeping out of the prairie sky - a sky some mornings clear and bright, the air cool and crisp, and others miserably frigid with rain, sleet and snowing. We watched tundra swans and swarms of shorebirds, coyotes and sharp-tailed grouse and the wind making waves in the seas of bluestem on what little remains of the native prairie.
But it was harder. It took us longer than normal to get going in the mornings, and we were slower at the considerable physical work that waterfowling demands. A couple of mornings, we took the less demanding options, even when it meant lowering our odds of success. We groaned more. And hurt in places that used to not hurt.
There is a reason few active waterfowlers are old enough to qualify for Medicare or Social Security afield. It can be hard, physically punishingly work, even for young bodies. And the truth is, we are no longer young.
Bella, too. At 11-plus, she’s feeling her age as much as Mike and me. Like us, she still has the desire, and hits the water (almost) as hard as in her prime. But she’s slower coming in and, like us, stiff in the morning and requires a bit of medication to get the kinks out. And, like her human partners, her hearing’s going. OK, gone. Still, she made some wonderful retrieves, swimming a good 100 yards after one bird and ferreting out a wing-tipped pintail drake that had disappeared into a sea of flooded bulrush, a bird few other retrievers could have found.
But it was obvious to both of us that Bella’s days afield are drawing to a close. This is her final season on the prairie. That bittersweet truth and all it brings with it suffused our hunts. How could it not?
We talked about Bella’s protégée, young Scout, just three months old and already impressing Mike with her talents, eagerness and willingness to learn from Bella’s example on the training fields. The plan is for her to join us next autumn for her first season on the prairie. I sincerely hope so.
But winter is coming. We can feel it, lurking just beyond the horizon.
I just pray it holds off a little longer. For all of us.