IN CENTRAL NORTH DAKOTA - Settling this rough country eliminated for pioneers any notion of personal time off. A haven of suffering and isolation, Dakota Territory was in its infancy a real character builder, a fact the Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa and Chippewa took for granted. Only with great reluctance did this land finally bend to horse-drawn plows, its transition from rock-filled prairie to cropland a real backbreaker.
Yet the other evening while the howls of coyotes closed in around us, we were comfortable enough in Kirk MacKenzie's shack. There was no television, and in one corner bent over a hot stove was Ryan Heiniger, while out back Kirk busied himself grilling. Slackers three, Ron Stromstad, Jim Ringelman and I awaited dinner around a pine table.
If it's October and you have the chance to spend a night or two in a duck shack, you'll find deep thoughts come easily. Mostly, the five of us talked about waterfowl. Politics occasionally reared its ugly head, but the effect was unsettling. Meanwhile the bright moon outside had an arc light's impression on the surrounding grasses, hills and potholes. Sally, Kirk's Labrador, assessed all of this keenly and snoozed.
"I found this property on the Internet,'' Kirk said. "It was advertised as farmland. But when I asked if there were any wetlands or potholes on it, the real-estate agent said, 'Yes, quite a few.' So I came to look.''
Already by then Kirk, semi-retired and living in the Twin Cities, had seen his share of good North Dakota duck hunting. Acquiring a respite in the Lower 48's last best place for waterfowl never was about piling more birds at his feet. He saw this country for the first time a half-century ago, when he was just 15, and immersion in the state's cattails, low clouds, decoys, northwest winds and cupped wings changed him forever.
"I'd never had a duck shack before,'' Kirk said. "I bought this place as a defense mechanism, in a way. Things have been changing in North Dakota. Public hunting areas get hunted pretty hard. And there is more and more posting of private land. So I decided to look for a place of my own.''
Dinner was served, and over it discussion turned to the federal farm bill, now hung up in Congress.
Ron, Ryan and Jim work for Ducks Unlimited out of Bismarck, and their preference, personal and professional, is that the Senate's version of the bill is passed and signed into law soon after the November election, regardless who wins the presidency.
Most farmers want this as well, and some already have marched on the nation's Capitol demanding it. But Washington is a funny place, and it's a roll of the dice.
"We understand the need for crop insurance and support it,'' Jim said. "But it's important that its availability is tied to conservation programs such as Swampbuster and Sodbuster. That's how it is in the Senate version. If that doesn't happen, with commodity prices as high as they are, some farmers -- perhaps many -- will take the insurance but opt out of federal conservation programs. Then we'll see more wetlands drained and more grasslands plowed up.''
Kirk is himself a farmer, after a fashion. Of the original 920 acres he purchased, about 300 are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, with 320 more in crop. "The rest is in grass and duck sloughs,'' he said, as are about 300 adjoining acres he subsequently bought.
Come morning, Ryan, Kirk and I settled into a wide band of cattails overlooking a dozen decoys on the leeward end of a pothole measuring perhaps 10 acres. The gusts that rampaged from the south would be called a gale anywhere else. But in North Dakota, where even on mildly windblown days locking ball caps on sideways is a good idea, these were mere breezes.
Night adjoined day. As it did, we saw a few flocks of mallards. Also there were smatterings of gadwall and blue-winged teal and a squadron of fully plumed drake bluebills. But this was not a particularly ducky morning, and only now and then did we pull up on birds. Ducks that fell, Sally the good dog retrieved.
Few preambles to breakfast stir the appetite like pulling off wet waders, which we did at midmorning. The coyotes by then were long gone for the day. The moon had set. Over eggs and sausage, we laid a few more world problems on the table, solving each.
This was at a duck shack, in October, and we were part of all of it.
Dennis Anderson's Twitter name is @dennisstrib firstname.lastname@example.org