My annual road trip in search of ringneck pheasants, sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge came to an end late Friday night. Overall, it was a good adventure for the dogs and I. The first five days of the journey would be alone before meeting up with friends who share our interests.
We found, shot, cooked and ate the gamebirds we sought, but more importantly for me was the time spent in the other America, the one with more land than people and the world seems to spin a little more slowly. Our first day on the road we made it to Beaver, Utah and our last ever stay in a Motel 6. From there we made it to Rexburg, Idaho for a very pleasant stay at an Americinn before heading to Yellowstone early the following morning, and where things began to get more interesting.
Of the towns closest to the four entrances to Yellowstone National Park, West Yellowstone, Montana, even with its abundance of fly shops takes a backseat for me to Gardiner in the north, Cody, Wyoming in the east and Jackson Hole of the same state in the south. Admittedly, that may owe to the fact that I’ve spent more time in West Yellowstone over the years than the other three towns combined.
The only stop the dogs and I made in West Yellowstone was to Eagles, an old tourist stop that has guarded the west entrance for decades. I was attracted not because it has different post cards and curios than the other shops in the area, but because of a young man I met there in the early 70’s when I attended one of the first conclaves of the Federation of Fly Fishermen.
One section of the sprawling store was dedicated to fly fishing and staffed by a young man named Kim Eagle. We struck up a quick friendship that led to talk of his aspirations beyond the sale of fly fishing gear and he told me it was his hope to go to college and then to medical school. As I pulled up to the curb, I wondered whether his dream of over 40 years earlier had come true, or he’d still be behind the counter of the fly shop selling gear and doling out honest advice for fly fishing in the area.
The first clerk I encountered told me she was not familiar with the name, but would check with the store manager. Moments later the store manager approached me and told me that Kim Eagle was a heart surgeon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was proof to me that the high hope of his sweet dreams had come true and I was not disappointed that he was not behind the counter of the fly fishing section where I was headed.
Within a few minutes, I was elated that I found a man with the same friendly and helpful demeanor that I had found there so many years before. Dave Van Rensselaer was tinkering with some fly fishing merchandise while directing another customer toward a clearance rack for children’s winter jacket when he spotted me and offered a warm greeting.
Talk of fly fishing and his seasonal job in the store turned to birdhunting and quite naturally to bird dogs. His face saddened when he told me that his last dog, a beloved golden retriever had died, and at the age of 73 he doubted whether he would have another canine hunting companion. He told me that his permanent home was in North Carolina, but that for several years he has pulled his Airstream trailer to West Yellowstone for the enjoyment of working in the store and sharing the knowledge he has gained over 50 years of fly fishing experience.
When he learned that my two companions, English springer spaniels Gus and Jack were in the truck, his faced brightened measurably as he asked if he could see them. The store manager not only approved his request for a break, but joined us as we walked to the truck and I explained my passion for the breed and their pleasing demeanor.
As we approached the truck, I held by breath that the dogs had not decided to eat the the leather upholstery. As the two strangers came into view, 18 month old Jack who is black and white barked in alarm and six year old Gus who is liver and white jumped up to see what the commotion was all about. When they spotted me they wriggled excitedly and acted as if they not seen me 20 years instead of the 20 minutes I’d been gone. The sight of them brought a wide smile to Dave’s face as he asked if he could pet them. As I opened the door they leaned into him and competed for his affection which was delivered generously for several minutes, until it was time to head back into the store with Dave asking more and more questions about the dogs.
By the time we got to the fly shop counter, Dave thanked me for showing up on this day, sharing my dogs with him and asked me how and where he might find such sweet dogs, companions that can turn it on in the field and off in the house. Over the course of the next few minutes I provided him with information on a couple of breeders I was familiar with and answered as many of his question as I felt qualified to address. Otherwise, I suggested he get in contact with Glenwood Kennels in South Dakota or James Gang Kennels in Nebraska.
By the time I left, he was ebullient, “I’m going to do it,” he said, “this is going to change my life.” It seemed to me that a very nice man who seemed quite happy and satisfied with life was headed toward an even higher trajectory, a nice move for someone of any age, let alone 73.
Before leaving the store we mutually agreed to stay in touch and maybe even fly fish or hunt together with our dogs some day in the future. Walking to my truck, I marveled and smiled at the thought of how such a simple encounter of less than an hour had been so rewarding to both of us.
#2 – Dead In Paradise Valley
When I was a bit more of a nut about fly fishing, and later when our kids were just kids, there were numerous trips to Yellowstone National Park. Regrettably, none of those visits included exiting through the north entrance through Mammoth Hot Springs to the town of Gardiner which sits hard by the Yellowstone River.
My purpose for taking this route would be my first visit to Paradise Valley along state highway 540 which roughly parallels the newer, busier and less meandering U.S. highway 89. My singular interest was the opportunity to spend some time, however brief, in a region that served as a Petri dish 40 years ago for some of my favorite writers, men like Richard Brautigan, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham and William Hjortsberg along with some colorful sidekicks that included Peter Fonda, Jimmy Buffett, Guy Valdene and an assortment of others, including wives and girlfriends
More than four decades after the fact, their interactions, particularly those of Brautigan still intrigue me. It was a time of exploration and experimentation that tested and stretched the bounds of literature as well as personal relationships that were sometimes driven by alcohol, drugs, ego, lust, troubled minds or some high octane combination of those components.
Only the principals would know how that period, much of it tumultuous, influenced their writing, art or lives at that time or in the years ahead. What we do know is that the biographical Jubilee Hitchhiker by Hortjsberg will tell us as much as we will ever know about Brautigan and a considerable amount about the others in its highly detailed 852 pages.
I entered Paradise Valley with two geographical destinations in mind. The first was Chico Hot Springs, a prominent historical retreat with the nearest bar, and that sometimes figured prominently in their lives while in the valley. With the help of a road map, Chico Hot Springs with its modern lodge, historic hotel and hot springs fed pool was easy to find.
After parking the truck, I toured the old hotel which despite its more than 100 years of age has been nicely maintained. The large swimming pool sits between it and the adjoining bar which was pretty much empty except for Corey, a young female bartender who recommended a pint of Moose Drool, a dark ale from Big Sky Brewing that I’d enjoyed on previous trips to Montana, and found time to tell me about her boyfriend who works in a mine, but is otherwise “out scouting or hunting every damned day.”
Knowing that Harrison was the most famous of the writers and continues to be a regular visitor who rents the same cabin each year and has been known to imbibe a bit, I asked Corey if she knew who he was. “Nope,” she explained, “I’m originally from Bakersfield.”
With the pint of beer finished, I bid Corey – a very pleasant girl who shoots birds with her own 20 gauge 870 Remington – a good day and continued my journey. A bit before the road from Chico Hot Springs reached the highway, there was a wide turnout ideal for Gus, Jack and I to sniff around the scrub brush before taking a pee.
Back in the truck, I pondered destination number two – the property with a house and barn where Brautigan had once lived, entertained his friends and notoriously shot the clock on his kitchen wall. It was also one of the places where regardless of the effort, he could not drink enough alcohol to erase the troubled feelings that came from a hardscrabble childhood of abuse that was without love or affection.
Lacking an address that could be found with a map, but knowing he had lived in the Pine Creek area of Paradise Valley, I turned to two books for reference. The dust cover for You Can’t Catch Death by his daughter Ianthe, features a photo of the two seated in front of the property’s barn. The sobering last photo offered in Jubilee Hitchhiker was of Brautigan’s snow covered mailbox and decorated with flowers by an anonymous admirer shortly after news of his suicide in Bolinas, California in 1984, was announced. The photo offered a few clues in the form of fenceposts, power poles, a road sign and a road itself that I figured I could find.
There were no other vehicles on the highway that afternoon, making it easy to pull to the shoulder and compare the photo to the road ahead. It wasn’t long before I found the spot. I retrieved the camera from the glove box and turned it on. Once I’d composed a wide angle photo for posterity and my own satisfaction, I pressed the shutter button. In the absence of hearing the shutter click, a message appeared on the screen.: It read simply and without satisfaction: “Battery Dead.”
As dead I supposed, as Richard Bratutigan whose writing and troubled life continue to intrigue me 30 years after his death.
#3 Rib and Chop House, Livingston, Montana
The wind, much like the irony of my failed photo op left me with a chill as it grew stronger and colder and the evening sky darkened. As I reached Livingston, I called ahead to some old San Diego friends who long ago had moved to Bozeman wit the hope they could put us up for the night or at least provide some recommendations.
“We’d love to have you stay with us,” she said with a giggle in her voice, “but we’re actually in San Diego for a visit right now, flew in yesterday. If we knew you were coming we could have left a key for you, but if you’re in Livingston right now, stay there, the rooms are cheaper and they have a great restaurant that we go to often. It is known as RCH which stands for Rib and Chop House.”
Taking her advise, I found a motel that allowed dogs and had a vacancy. It was nothing special, but satisfactory for a lone traveler and a couple of dogs seeking some warmth on a cold and windy night. The restaurant was packed and had a waiting list for tables in the dining room, but the hostess spotted a table being cleared in the bar and directed me to it.
Despite the fact the entire place was buzzing with customers on a Wednesday night, the service was friendly and efficient. It was not long before I was looking at another pint of Moose Drool, a baked potato and a rack of barbecued ribs as good as I’ve ever tasted.
Back at the motel, Gus and Jack staked out their positions on the bed while I showered. With some effort, I found a spot where I could lay down while keeping my body intact and quickly joined them in slumber.
#4 I Could Have Sent You Somewhere Else Where I Know There Are Plenty Of Pheasants
I left Livingstone in the morning with a day to spare before picking up a hunting partner at the Helena airport on Friday. I stopped at the Montana Game and Fish office in Bozeman for a hunting license and was immediately impressed by the friendly and helpful service as well as the interpretive displays of fish and wildlife.
Driving west and then north, grazing land on both sides of state Highway 287 transitioned to wheat fields and a greater likelihood of finding some pheasants. Reaching the hamlet of Townsend, I stopped at a U.S. Forest Service office where it was suggested that I might find some pheasants on some state land just south of Canyon Ferry Lake and only ten minutes away.
We were nearing the end of our fourth day on the road and Gus, Jack and I were ready to stretch the ten legs we had between us. The state hunting area looked pretty good from the cab of the truck. Previously farmed land had been fallowed and returned to grassland, just across the road from a cut wheat field. It was bisected by an irrigation canal and had several rows of shrubs and small trees planted as shelter belts. The area looked ideal until I tried to open the door and found considerable opposition from a strong and dry wind that made scenting conditions difficult if not impossible for the dogs.
Nonetheless, it was our first opportunity to stroll gun in hand and we took it. We took it up and down the banks of the canal, the edges for shelter belts and the uncut edge of the adjacent wheat field, jumping nothing but whitetail does curled up deep in the deepest grass for protection from the wind.
After returning to the truck, I decided to drive around the general area which was dotted with small farms and No Trespassing signs. As I came to the intersection of two gravel roads, I looked ahead to see two roosters pecking along the road’s shoulder to restock their gizzards with grit. I parked the truck and as I walked toward them they disappeared like ghosts into the deep brome grass of the drainage ditch that bordered the road, and followed them into it.
The smaller of the two roosters flushed ten yards away and scoldingly squawked at me at it flew to the cover of a nearby shelter belt. The larger of the two simply vanished.
Back in the truck and on the road as the late afternoon turned toward evening, I stopped in a small bait and tackle shop along the highway just south of Townsend. The proprietor at first regarded me a little suspiciously. I’d grown up working on lakes where in addition to fishing as much as I could, handled boat rentals, sold tackle and provided free advice. There is a language that comes with that and when he realized I could speak it, warmed to our conversation with enthusiasm and offered me a stool across the counter from his own.
He told me that after owning and running a nearby marina at Canyon Ferry Lake for 35 years he’d retired, but kept his hand in the game through his well-stocked little shop. I told him I’d retired after 30 years of managing a chain of lakes and of working on them for years before that beginning when I was 12.
Eventually, our conversation turned to hunting and my experience in the state-managed field, and he shook his back and forth disdainfully.
“There have been so many hunters through that field since the season opened three weeks ago that I’d be surprised if there was a bird left in there. I know some wheat farmers just down the road and would have called them for you.”
“I wish you’d stopped in here first. I could have sent you somewhere else where I know there are plenty of pheasants.”
I wish I had.
#5 The Veal And Server At Lucca’s
With the only motel in Townsend pretty much rundown and filled with “long term” guests who appeared to be as down and out as the place itself, and no energy to stand guard over my truck and gear all night, I headed up the highway to Helena and checked into a comfortable room with the dogs.
Having eaten only a Safeway sandwich all day, I was ready for a good meal. On the advice of the motel’s desk clerk I located Lucca’s which she described as the only real Italian food in the area. Located in Helena’s downtown business and banking district, it looked promising from the outside and was quite cozy on the inside with most tables filled and formally dressed servers hustling about.
Shortly after being seated, I was greeted by a pleasant young lady and without looking at the menu I asked if they served a veal scallopini dish. When she answered in the affirmative, I ordered that along with a glass of chianti.
With most of the dinner crowd departing, she found time to stop by the table and chat after bringing me the wine. When I told her I was from San Diego, she told me she had spent the better part of a year working at the French Gourmet in Pacific Beach. In response to my query, she told me she was aware that the owner had been fined and imprisoned for wage and immigration violations, adding “we had mostly Mexicans in the kitchen who didn’t speak much English, but they sure made great French pastries.”
Soon she delivered the veal dish which was served over a bed of linguini. As I was finishing the meal, she returned and asked me to to give her an honest evaluation which went something like this, “the linguini and marsala sauce were quite good, but at $27.95, instead of being a thin scallop from the leg, the veal consisted of a machine tenderized and heavily breaded cutlet better suited for chicken fried steak.”
Thankful, but disappointed by my assessment, she came back with the bottle of chianti explaining that it was near the end of the bottle, needed to be finished up and refilled my glass without charge. She asked for my recipe for veal marsala which I was glad to give, and she was eager to try cooking for her fiance’ as a surprise.
I asked if she had aspirations to work in restaurant kitchens. “Oh no,” she said, “I’m working to become a funeral director, right now we’re doing embalming which I’m enjoying and is really interesting.”
Sometimes the food is neither the best or most memorable part of a restaurant meal.
#6 A Log Cabin In The Woods
With some time to kill before picking up one of my hunting partners who would be flying into the Helena airport later in the day, I browsed the aisles of Sportsmans’s Warehouse. Like Cabela’s, Bass Pros Shop and Scheels, it is one of those giant box stores that caters to fishermen, hunters and campers, but a bit less dressed up. Despite its millions of dollars worth of enticing merchandise, I’d spent just the right amount of time looking, but not a single cent before needing to head to the airport.
The highlight of the day would be a brief visit with another friend to his off the grid log cabin outside the hamlet of Wolf Creek. A native Montanan and latter-day mountain man who had recently retired from serving a citified sentence in San Diego as a construction manager, the cabin has been his shelter from an assortment of storms involving the loss of dear friends – some of whom helped him build the cabin – and personal health issues.
When he first found the place, there was little more than an old foundation and the base of two walls. Log by log, vacation by vacation and callous by callous, he turned it into a comfortable cabin where as an outdoorsman he could survive pretty much off the land in a forest filled with bear, elk, deer, turkeys and grouse. Jarred and pickled vegetables secured from the Hutterite colony on the other side of Wolf Creek round out the menu.
The antlers of the deer and elk along with an assortment of skins decorate the interior. His water comes from a well and the nearby out house is reluctantly shared with a wood rat.
In the spring, when the creek runs strong, rainbow trout migrate up it from the Missouri River to spawn in its gravel bed, but even now with the stream reduced to a series of intermittent pools fed by subterranean flows there are enough left for the occasional dinner, provided he gets to them before the raccoons.
It is a terrific place for someone who can live without the electronic gods most bow down to – no television or radio, no calls or texts – just a peaceful place off the grid at the end of a long dirt road.
#7 Fort Benton, The Grand Union Hotel And Lila
Although our next stop was a warm bed in Great Falls, our next destination was Fort Benton. I don’t watch much television, but one program I do enjoy, along with Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown is The Flush. Sponsored by Pheasants Forever, it appears on the Outdoor Channel and features bird hunting adventures weighted toward pheasants.
A month or so ago, the program detailed a hunt near the town of Fort Benton alongside the Missouri River. It was a restored hotel that was visited that put the former frontier outpost on my radar, rather than the frigid hunting conditions that were featured in the show.
We took a circuitous route from Highway 87 for the purpose of being able to cross the Big Mo on the free Carter Ferry which is maintained primarily for the benefit of area wheat farmers and runs only from April 1 until November 1. The ferry is a barge connected to a steel cable, large gears that turned a drum, and a gas engine that powered it all. I believe we were the first customers that day and doubt there would be many more. As we pulled up to the landing, a hand-scrawled sign read, “Hold buzzer for 3 seconds,” which I did.
After a few minutes a man showed up, started the gas engine and waved us on to the barge which took us slowly across the river on an overhead cable decorated in places with fishing line from the errant casts of anglers who floated the river. Once to the other side, he waves us off and we disembarked onto the landing and a continuation of the gravel road from the highway. We’d not gone far before we spotted a sharptail grouse atop a fence post. As we drew closer, the grouse and a small group of companions took off and landed on the side of a distant coulee.
A bit further down the road, I spotted the twitch of an ear in a harvested wheat field. Backing up to get a better look with binoculars, a coyote rose to its feet and returned my gaze. At the same time, we attracted the attention of a Game Warden who had been watching us with binoculars from a distance, and I’d met two years earlier when we’d pulled off to inspect an abandoned old school house. Although we weren’t hunting, she wanted to check our licenses which she said were in order followed by an approving nod of her head. She was looking for hunters who were on land without written permission, adding “but if the property owner doesn’t care, there’s not much I can do about it.”
Despite the farming, we were in a rugged area dotted by coulees that lead down to the river. Birds had to be pretty tough to survive here and I mean no respect when I say this particular Game Warden seemed like a tough old bird suited to doing so.
Formations of sandhill cranes passed overhead as we worked our way along the gravel roads and their unnamed intersections, and I can only describe their vocalizations as indescribable by me. Anyone with an interest in the outdoors who has not heard them should.
The gravel road finally ran into a paved road that in turn took us to a bridge that crossed back over the river, dropping us off on Fort Benton’s main street which parallels the bank of the river. An assortment of interpretive signs described details about the history of Fort Benton, ranging from the mysterious drowning of a former Governor of low standing to the story of Shep, a dog of legendary loyalty and high standing.
There is a statue of Shep along with a well-marked grave monument that overlooks the river just outside of town. Lacking either, it seems the Governor did not fare as well as Shep, and most would say for good reason.
Driving to the federal government offices on a Saturday morning, we found that all offices, along with the Fort Benton Interpretive Center were closed. Disappointed, we drove to the old hotel I’d seen on The Flush and it was there that our disappointment ended with exclamation. Lila was the lady behind the registration desk and it was evident that aside from us, the hotel was empty save for Lila, a housekeeper and a small group of farmers convening in a meeting room.
It was also evident that Lila, who was serving as Manager to help out a friend was anxious to show us around. She told us about the history of the hotel and Fort Benton. She described as not only the birthplace of the state of Montana, but how as as the uppermost navigable point for Missouri River steamships, it became the center of the fur and buffalo trade, and the stepping off point for gold seekers and settlement of the northwest.
Opened in 1882, the Grand Union Hotel was reputed to be the finest hotel between Chicago and Seattle. Over time, and with the development of more modern transportation as well as changes in commerce, Fort Benton lost its stature as a center of trade. With those changes, the hotel lost its lustre and fell into disrepair.
Lila explained that she had retired from teaching in Great Falls and that Montana history was her greatest passion. As it turned out, she was friends with a wealthy couple from Great Falls who share her love of Montana history and in 1999 used their considerable resources to restore the three story brick hotel to its elegant history under supervision of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Lila’s eyes brightened and her step quickened as she told us the history of the hotel and showed us around with the kind of enthusiasm reserved for those who share their knowledge for free rather than a paycheck. She was happy to help out her friends, but for years after her retirement she has divided her time between Montana and a cottage on the island of Maui.
Soon, it would be time for her to go, and likewise, the owners of the hotel had reluctantly decided to sell in order to devote the time required of their Hong Kong based businesses.
If I had 1.8 million dollars I’d buy the place, but only if Lila would agree to run it, because special historic places like the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton require the love and careful attention of people like Lila.
#8 The Havre Underground
As we prepared to leave the Grand Union Hotel and thanked Lila for the impromptu tour and history lesson, she suggested we make another stop along the road to Plentywood. “If you get a chance, stop by the Chamber of Commerce office in Havre and take the underground tour, it’s terrific.”
Continuing north on Highway 87, we merged into Highway 2 which is simply known as “the highline” by Montanans continued eastward to Havre for a late lunch while awaiting the start of “Havre Beneath the Streets.”
Our tour guide was a man named Gene who upon learning we were from San Diego told us he’d gone through boot camp at the Naval Training Center, but seemed to recall more about his visits as a young sailor to Tijuana which is not an uncommon recollection of young men who came through San Diego as a way point in their military service.
Soon we were joined on the tour by a young couple with one small child and an even smaller one in a stroller and following Gene along a sidewalk as he explained how much of Havre was destroyed in a fire in 1904. Local merchants who had lost their businesses in the fire moved underground.
As we reached the Order of Eagles aerie, Gene opened a side door and we followed him down stairs into what had once been an extensive underground mall consisting of roughly ten blocks of various businesses including a bakery, butcher shop, laundry, pharmacy, dental and law offices, a saloon and “red light district,” until the above ground structures destroyed by the fire could be re-built.
Gene explained that the tunnels and businesses were originally created by Chinese laborers brought to Havre to work on the railroad, and seemed pleased when I mentioned a similar history of construction beneath the streets of Baja California’s Mexicali. Often subject to racist abuse, the industrious Chinese found some degree of refuge by creating their own commerce center under the streets of Havre. When the reconstruction of the businesses destroyed by fire was complete, most of the businesses moved back to street level, while the subterranean “red light” district consisting of a brothel and no less than three opium dens flourished, and were joined by a saloon when its above ground location was closed by Prohibition.
The saloon moved back to street level when Prohibition came to an end and the brothels hung on for a decade or so longer with headstones in the local cemetery offering a muted tribute to the young Chinese girls who worked and died there.
The Havre Chamber of Commerce and its financial angels are to be commended for their re-creation and interpretation of this part of American history, and finding men like Gene who share themselves, and volunteer to lead tours for love of their town and its unique history.
Continuing eastword along the high line, we spent the night in Glasgow, and after nearly 1,700 miles on the road, I could just as well have been in Scotland by the time my head hit the pillow with Gus and Jack sprawled across my body.
#9 Back “Home” in Plentywood
Okay, so Plentywood, Montana is not my home, but for the last three years it has been my primary roadtrip hunting destination, and the generous hospitality extended to me provides the comfort of home. For a while, it is the end of motel beds and the end of a long road that terminates in Montana’s extreme northwest corner, where at times we found ourselves chasing roosters hard against the borders of both Canada and North Dakota.
My benefactors are hard working man named Wes and his hard playing father by the name of Bernt. Now 87, but born in Sweden, Bernt likes to say that when his parents came to America he was only three and followed them by swimming benind the boat and describes himself as free, white and over 21. I met Wes through the same friend from San Diego who was originally a native of this area and built the log cabin in Wolf Creek.
When the demands of work on storage tanks and pipelines in the booming well fracking industry in what locals call the “oil patch” kept Wes too busy to show us where we could hunt, he turned us over to Bernt who is quite a character, and for lack of a more apt description, the most recognizable figure in Plentywood.
Over the course of his life he came to own, rent, sell, lease or manage much of the land in the area, served a stint as tax assessor and for 38 years ran unopposed for the position of County Commissioner. Having Bernt as our “guide” was like having the key to the county and the result was some terrific hunting opportunities, as well as some very interesting ones.
At our request Bernt took us to the Canadian border. Along the way he pointed out a trio of his oil wells, “one is vertical for a mile,” he said, “one goes sidways a mile to the west and the other goes the same distance to the east. Much of the land from the wells to Canada belonged to him and was leased to other farmers.
The end of his property, a narrow road separated a 360 acre corn field from the border which was marked by an informal looking sign, a formal looking four strand fence, and “guarded” by cameras that alert Homeland Security to the presence of intruders, miscreants that include moose, elk, deer, coyotes and the occasional hunter.
A few minutes later a Border Patrol vehicle came into sight and stopped long enough at a distance behind us to run my California license plates before two officers got out of the vehicle, approached us cautiously and asked to see our proof of citizenship. One of the officers asked Bernt who was driving if he had permission to be on the property from its owner and seemed skeptical when informed by Bernt that he owned the property. “Who,” the officer asked, “is farming it?”
When Bernt provided the right answer, the officer explained that he was just checking and was satisfied that Bernt owned the property we were offroading across before bidding a good day and moving on.
“One day a guy from the government came to me and said that I had to move my fence because it extended across the border,” Bernt told us, “and I told him that it was up to the government to straighten that out because the fence was there when I bought that property from the government.”
“You know,” laughed Bernt with a mischievious twinkle in his eyes, “its a funny thing, but I never heard from him again.”
#10 Thought This Blog Was About Hunting!
To keep some folks interested and willing to check this blog, I suppose it may be necessary to throw in some dead critters from time to time and a week into this “hunting trip,” now may be that time. The problem is that such trips for me are more like travelogues that make the guns and hunting secondary to the peripheral issues.
Plus, I have to admit that the trip and its peripheral issues I find most interesting would not exist were it not for the fact the purpose of the trip is to go hunting. Does that make any sense to you? I didn’t think so, but here goes:
Driving east of town on the paved road that leads to Westby, Bernt pulled off to the right and onto a vaguely familiar gravel road. It veered away from the pavement and bisected fields of cut wheat stubble before dipping down into a very familiar and memorable creek bed he’d taken us to a year earlier, when Ryan notched a limit of cock pheasants in no more than 45 minutes.
With Ryan back in San Diego teaching school and officiating volleyball games, my companion was Jeff who I’d picked up earlier at the Helena airport, and had been with me on the first trip here in 2012 that served as the blueprint for future trips.
As we got out of the truck, the warmth of its heated seats was abruptly exchanged for wet grass in the creek bottom and a cold and biting wind that made me want to climb back into the truck. No longer flowing, Gus and Jack immediately began searching upstream through deep grass, past still pools and along a steep embankement that rose sharply to our right. It was not long before I was reminded that keeping an eye on two dogs is more than twice as hard as following one. I’ve never been good at any math beyond arithmetic, but I think what I was dealing with was one of those exponential things.
Unlike a year earlier when Jack as a six-month old pup pretty much just followed Gus, I could see that with a little more experience, Jack had gained the confidence to hunt on his own. With the dogs working back and forth in front of us, a rooster flushed in front me. My cold thumb fumbled with the safety before finally pushing it forward and I missed a routine straight away shot that should have been made.
As we continued on, both dogs began to work farther out than I wanted them to. Initially, they responded well to the series of whistle bleets used to call them back, but there was a competition growing between the two dogs that made it easy for them to ignore the whistle and I was concerned that they would be flushing birds out of range in front of us.
Tired of blowing the whistle to little effect and figuring that this was not a good lesson for the younger dog, we circled back to the truck where I put Gus in the kennel. This was the third season in which I’d hunted the creekbed, but I’d never before hunted downstream from where we parked the truck, which we decided to do.
Thirty yards into it, I could see that Jack had picked up a trail of scent that he followed for about 20 yards before flushing a rooster that like the earlier one flushed straight away, but this time my thumb did not fumble with the safety and the shot was true. The bird fell along a barbwire fenceline and Jack was on it in an instant. Jack pranced back to me rather proudly and I’m guessing the rooster in his mouth obscured what much have been a wide canine smile as he sat down and I removed the prize from Jack’s jaws.
Continuing on, Jack quartered nicely ahead of me and staying well within range. It was nice not to have to blow on the whistle. For the most part, I have found that dogs tend to work primarily, if not exclusively for their masters which is understandable, but often results in less opportunities for dogless hunters on the flanks unless the bird takes a crossing route for escape.
We worked forwarded with Jack and I in the tall grass of the creek bottom and Jeff flanked to our right in shorter grass on a sidehill embankment when a third rooster flushed and offered yet another straight away shot at a distance of 30 yards. Raising my gun, I covered the bird, fired my first barrel and saw the bird flinch heavily, but it continued on with Jack below it in pursuit. I fired the second barrel and saw a few feathers drifting down, but still the bird continued on with Jack still in pursuit but losing ground.
At a distance of over 300 yards, the bird passed over the ridge of a hill and not knowing what was on the other side, I whistled a recall and to my surprise, Jack stopped and had just begun his return when I saw the bird go straight up before crumpling and falling straight down.
Jeff had seen the first shot hit the bird, assumed it had fallen nearby and was incredulous when I told him it had not only kept going after the first shot, but was hit a second time and continued on for what I judged to be close to a quarter of a mile before dying in midair and falling to the ground.
It took us several minutes to reach the small hill. We ascended it to find a large flat of low vegetation that had been grazed, but could not see the bird. Before beginning a search for it, I decided it best to simply let Jack work the area for a few minutes, which he did in searching casts of ever increasing arcs that he must have born with. I’d guess he was about 60 yards away when he picked up scent, turned, went another five yards and bent his head down to pick up the dead rooster before racing back to me.
Jeff and I negotiated the distance by looking back to where we were when I shot and then to the spot where Jack picked up the rooster. We concluded that my estimate of a quarter of a mile was probably a little long, but that the distance was no less than 350 yards and not more than 400.
Considering it was the first of many days of hunting, the need to check out of a motel room, the fact that we were both cold and wet and the truck was dry and warm, we walked back to it at a faster pace than we walked away from it.
#11 The Natural?
I’m sure I was beaming when I called home that evening with the announcement to family and friends, “Jack is The Natural,” I exclaimed! “He works within range, quarters naturally, picks up scent, flushes roosters and if I can hit them, he finds them and retrieves them to hand! He’s an effing natural!”
And for that morning he had been. The 18 month old black and white pup that came to me from English Springer Rescue of America (ESRA) when he was five months old and had received minimal field training put on a clinic that morning. There was simply nothing more I could have asked for in his performance,
#12 Body Type aka “Horses for Courses”
Where Gus was a field trial washout for a lack of high end speed and and animation that translates into a blue ribbon winning “style,” Jack has plenty of both. Gus plows through cover while Jack flies over it. If Gus is a puncher throwing haymakers, Jack is a clever boxer who throws sharp jabs, ducks, weaves. Their body conformation suggests as much.
Of the three springers in my life, each had a fundamentally different body. Rainy was short and stocky. Slightly taller, but also pretty solid, Gus is longer butt to nose than Rainy was. Like Rainy, Gus proved early on to be a terrific ditch dog with a fearless will to fight through the toughest and nastiest vegetation in order to flush pheasants from deep, steep sided ditches where many wild pheasants, but few dogs would go. True “ditch dogs” are rarely seen between the beginning and end of a ditch. Fleeing birds, bunnies and the occasional coyote are often the only evidence something is going on down there, aside from cattails and arrow weed waving unnaturally as they plow through.
When the stars are aligned, a rooster pheasant bursts out cackling and falls to the crack of a gun. If not, or the shot misses, it is on to the next ditch and then more…
The dirtiest ditches were Rainy’s “bread and butter” and Gus proved to be an able understudy until felled by a bacteria (likely a strain of aeromonas) that is common to warm, stagnant water, and in the case of Gus and maybe only Gus becomes a flesh-eater. The 2011 and 2013 seasons were cut short by the infection and repeated trips to the vet for removal of dead and dying tissue, blood tests and administration of antibiotics.
Gus is a unique victim to this “tropical” bacteria which apparently does not exist in the creek bottoms and shelter belts of Montana and North Dakota, hence our annual trips in pursuit of roosters.
Deep and dirty ditches are literally and figuratively beneath Jack who is taller, leggier and so slight in build as to appear undernourished when compared to Gus or the departed Rainy. Where they would physically mow down cover, Jack is more inclined to go around or jump over it in a fashion that can best be described as ephemeral, which sounds better than dainty.
Jack is a different dog with a different body and style. He is clearly more suited for fields and grasslands and I’m guessing it is more likely that I will need to adjust my approach to hunting to his strengths before he will consider adjusting to suit mine.
#13 From Competition to Confusion
In his first season of hunting as a pup during the 2013 season, Jack pretty much just followed Gus like an annoying younger brother with a “hey guys, whats up?” attitude. Running them together on this trip proved to be a mistake on my part as the competition between them quickly got our of hand.
When hunted alone, each dog worked within acceptable range and responded to commands with the understanding they were hunting for me, making us a team. Worked together, they increased their range, ignored commands and hunted in competition with each other, making us opponents.
If I can’t correct this, I know two dogs that might be getting E-collars for Christmas.
#14 Other Stuff – Part I
If the dogs mostly hunted pretty well in Montana until the end of our stay there, they mostly hunted pretty poorly in North Dakota. If they were okay in heavy cover that required closer scrutiny, they were abominable in light cover or when giving chase to roosters that were missed or hens that were not targets. In both states, Gus tried to catch a whitetail doe for us.
Both dogs hit barb wire fences from time to time, but only Gus suffered a laceration deep enough to require a trip to the vet for stitches, antibiotics and a steroid – all pretty much par for the course when pheasant hunting in that country.
Upon reaching the cabin we’d rented in North Dakota, we were joined by hunting partner Dave and his springer Tag, who’d hunted in South Dakota while we were in Montana. At times we all hunted together and at other times hunted apart. Sometimes we drove to other locations miles away and sometimes we hunted around the cabin. Jeff did well walking a fenceline that began 100 yards from our door and Dave shot a rooster in the front yard.
Suffice to say that we shot and ate a fair number of pheasants along with a few sharptail grouse (delicious and better tasting in my opinion) and missed a few shots we should have made. Jeff shot extremely well with his 20 gauge side by side which is worth noting out of fairness, given the grief and heckling we have given him when he has shot not nearly as well.
Conversely, son Ryan who flew in for a few days of hunting and normally shoots quite well was frustrated with his shooting, missing a couple of roosters on straight away shots that are among the “easiest” a rooster will offer the hunter, but often the most missed.
There was a time when I was much younger when I’d have hunted as hard as I could for the purpose of shooting as many pheasants as I could while keeping precise track of the number. I’d have filled an ice chest with birds, many of which would have been destined for freezer burn and waste.
I suppose I am more circumspect in my dotage, shooting only what I know we will eat and not being so concerned with the count. As a golf partner of roughly the same age recently commented, “we are well into the back nine and there are no replays on this course, so let’s really enjoy the remaining holes.”
#15 Other Stuff – Part II
For the last two days of our stay in North Dakota, my guns and dogs remained in the back of the truck as I decided to broaden my focus. This was my third trip to the area in the last three years and I’d never ventured very much to the south. With the South Dakota border less than ten miles away and feeling no need to shoot more birds or scold disobedient dogs for hunting for themselves, I meandered the backcountry roads that intersect pretty much every mile. When I reached those intersections, a mental coin flip determined whether I would turn left, right, or continue straight ahead.
In every direction, aside from some fallowed grass lands were fields of stubble wheat or corn, some standing, some cut and some in the process of being harvested. Whitetail deer, pheasants and Hungarian partridge gleaned the kernels that were left behind while watching the truck cautiously. Enormous white plastic tubes filled with wheat lay in the fields like giant tubes of toothpaste and would remain so until the price per bushel became profitable enough to squeeze out the grain. Pasta makers in Italy would have to wait for their shipments of durum wheat. Large trucks loaded with corn rumbled down the gravel roads toward the train tracks and the next step in their journey from field to table or gas pump.
Turning to the west along a road that paralleled the South Dakota border, the outline of a distant church stood out on the horizon as the sun began descending in the west. The exterior of the North Grand church, its brick walls and tall steeple were very much intact, even restorable. A pair of rooster pheasants flew into a shelter belt behind the church and cackled loudly as they found their roost for the night, and I found no need to bother them.
Before entering, I noticed that someone had tacked a plastic sunflower on the door of the church. It and a pair of empty beer bottles laying on the basement floor were the only “modern” embellishments I found. The interior, including a large basement floor consisted of old and decaying hand-hewn lumber was strewn about in disarray. A single bench pew remained intact and rested out of place against a side wall.
The church bell that once rang from the top of the steeple was long gone, as were the steeple shaped windows that lined each of the side-walls. Where were they now? Were they with the organ that once accompanied the choir that sang from the small balcony at the rear of the church?
What of the people? On the east side of the church was a sturdily mounted steel sign with letters cut out that read:.
North Grand Cemetery
Some no doubt, who lived in the abandoned farmhouses that dotted the landscape lay beneath me. Some still, and surely their descendants lived in the few occupied houses that remained. Some homes were new, some restored and some were just hanging on. Faded and mostly Nordic immigrant names and derivations of same remained on roadside mailboxes.
I walked behind the church for relief from the cold wind that was blowing harder, and could not help but to admire its construction and craftsmanship – a lingering tribute to the resolve, tenacity and faith of the people who came together in community to build it.
I tried to imagine how hard they must have worked in order to create this monument to their faith. I marveled at the hand hewn lumber, the bricks and the transport of materials on wagons likely pulled by mules that likely pulled plows on their normal workdays. As the sun began to set behind it, I admired the stunning outline of this church built with their own hands.
I wondered how long they must have worked here, and how they found the time when simply trying to survive by scratching a living from the soil was so difficult. As an aside, I noticed that someone continued to mow the grounds of the church and it cemetery, and wondered who they were, some 45 years after the last burial and Sunday service.
Looking inward, I could not help but give thought to my own relatives who I know so little about. We are told my mother’s side of the family descended from an illegal alien, a “ship jumper” who derived the surname Haines from Helm or Helms, or who really knows. He arrived in the very early 1800’s, fled to and settled in West Virginia where he founded the Dunkard Creek Baptist Church. One of the thirteen children born to he and his wife was my great grandfather who was among the first to migrate to and break the ground in southern Iowa. There, he founded the New Harmony Church and helped to create a new township by the telling name of Promise City. He did this roughly fifty years before the North Grand Church began taking shape on this North Dakota hill.
What I cannot help but know, is that these industrious immigrants – both legal and illegal – were people of incredible vision, strength and faith, the likes of which we have not seen in decades in this country, and may never see again.
# 16 For The Love Of Their Town
Our last day in North Dakota began with a breakfast stop in Reeder, a once thriving little mining town in southwestern North Dakota. Like other towns in similar situations, when the mine closed, the town began to wither. When the employees of the mining company moved away, the bank and most of the businesses closed down. With so few students, the handsome and once-proud Reeder School closed as well.
By most accounts, the town was dying and would soon be dead, save for the work of some local angels (more about them at the end of this story) with energy, a vision toward the future and a commitment to not let their town die. Historically, the Reeder School with its students and associated activities had once been the heart of the community. How, without students could they keep that heart beating?
With the patient on life-support, the angels created a non-profit corporation (Dakota Prairie Enrichment Center, Inc.) and two-pronged approach with one prong used to serve local residents as a community center, and the other as a destination and hostel for visitors as the school’s basic facilities were converted to multi-purpose use.
Members of Community Center can enjoy free use of exercise equipment in a fitness room and games in a recreation room as well as a library. Modest rental fees apply for the use of meeting rooms, a kitchen/dining room and a gymnasium/auditorium ideal for reunions, concerts and parties.
The desks in 12 rooms have been replaced by one to five beds in each for a total of 40 beds available for lodging. During the fall, when the hunting seasons are at their peak, most of the beds are occupied by hunters and a small building once used as a changing room for cheerleaders now serves as a phesant cleaning station. Dogs are welcome, but must be kept in kennels in the rooms and leashed in transit through the buildings.
During the non-hunting months the rooms and their beds are occupied by travelers passing through the area, visitors to local families and guests on hand for events held at the facility.
With help of a vague tip from a North Dakota native, we “discovered” the Reeder School three years ago in the course of a pheasant hunting trip that was planned too late to secure lodging in the few motels in the region. Upon arrival in the parking lot, I recalled that while there were times as a student when I was required to stay after school, I’d never before spent the night in one. We actually spent the nights during our stay in the room that had once served as the principal’s office.
One of the highlights of our stay at the Reeder School, was the terrific country-style breakfasts served each and every morning by community volunteers in what had originally been the school cafeteria. There is no menu, just a seeminly endless supply of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, toast, hash browns, juice and coffee, not to mention the heavenly rhubarb sauce homemade of course by the angels. Best of all though is the opportunity during breakfast to visit with these fine folks and learn what is behind their devotion.
The angels, really just retired community residents who love their town so much that they refuse to let it die, are led by Kay and Brad Hofland, who assume and ably ensure that the duties required to operate the entire facility are fulfilled, ranging from Hotel Manager to Custodian – and every job in between.
Brad and Kay have been assisted in the kitchen nearly every morning for the last six years by Bob and Margie Frandsen. Brad graduated from the Reeder School in 1959, Kay in 1960, Bob in 1945 and Margie in 1948. That’s what I call being true to your school.
Visitors to this region of the Dakotas, with even the slightest bit of adventure and curiosity in their veins are best served by a stay at the Reeder School.
Those who need a swimming pool, a special mattress or menu are probably better off an hour away at a hotel in Dickinson, but they won’t find the adventure, genuine country hospitality – and certainly not the rhubarb sauce – offered by the angels of Reeder School for little more than the love and life of their little town.
Overnight stays at the Reeder School are as memorable as they are inexpensive. For current rates or information, call (701) 853-2311, email them (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit their website at www.reedernd.com.
#17 About To The End
Seventeen entries should be enough for a nineteen day hunting trip. Entry sixteen won’t be complete until I hear back from the folks in Reeder with some suggestions and possible changes, but the basic picture is there. Overall, it was a good trip as I had the opportunity to see some new things, be with old friends, meet some new ones and have Ryan’s company for a few days afield with the dogs and my other hunting partners.
I realize there is not a lot here about guns, ammo and birds stuffed into the gamebag of my vest, but those things are really just one aspect of my sporting life when I am on a hunting trip. I’ll remember the places and people met along the way for longer than I’ll be able to remember all of the birds that were shot.
It really is more about the journey than the destination, and for me that is not only the the way it should be, but the only way it can be.