Exactly when Matt Keller learned that waterfowl hunting is more fun when accompanied by a kid or two or 10 or 12 is difficult to pinpoint. What he knows now is that as much as he loves duck hunting, and goose hunting, he loves kids more. And not just his two sons, ages 7 and 9, who will accompany him Saturday morning, when the state's waterfowl season opens.
Keller, 33, of Bemidji, well known for the website he runs, www.minne_sotawaterfowler.com, is hanging up his scattergun, at least for a while, beginning next summer when he and his wife, Heidi, move to New Zealand to prepare for lives as missionaries to kids worldwide.
"We're selling everything we have," he said. "Our hope is that someday we'll be working in a rescue house for kids, though we don't know where. Maybe South America. Maybe somewhere else. Thousands of kids in the world are homeless. We want to help get them on their feet and give them hope."
For about a dozen years, Keller, a graduate of Bemidji State University and Oak Hills Christian College, has ministered in the marsh, as it were, to hundreds of kids in the Bemidji area, an effort that began when a young boy asked Keller if he could tag along on a duck hunt.
"I had never been asked that before, but I said, 'Sure,' " Keller recalled. "We got the boy's hunter safety course taken care of and took him trapshooting to prepare for the hunt. He couldn't hit anything, and when we took him hunting, he went through a box of shells before he took a shot, literally, at a sitting duck, and missed that too."
The boy had poor vision, Keller would learn. And couldn't read. No one had told him that he needed glasses.
"That was what opened my eyes to what's really going on in our community," Keller said. "It's since snowballed to what it is now."
"What it is now" is a lot. With help from family, friends and other volunteers, Keller, through the nonprofit Timber Bay Youth Outdoor Adventures, leads outdoor trips for Bemidji-area kids.
A recent trip to northwest Minnesota to hunt cranes and geese was typical: Sleeping in a donated deer-hunting shack, a group of boys and adult volunteers hunted together, cooked together, ate together, prayed together -- and learned from one another.
Similar trips are taken each year to Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, to the Boundary Waters and onto frozen lakes to fish.
None of which Keller could have predicted seven years ago, when his dad, Jim, died at age 50.
"Dad had a vision that our family should start a business to keep us together," Keller said. "That's when we started minnesotawaterfowler. com. My three brothers and my sister and mom are all involved in some way. I do most of it. But it keeps us together, like dad wanted."
The site has a loyal following in part because it stresses what its name suggests: duck and goose hunting in Minnesota. Not North Dakota, Manitoba or Saskatchewan. Minnesota.
"My love has always been Minnesota," Keller said. "The hunts we take, and talk about, aren't guided and aren't on leased land. People want to see what's available in their own backyards. There's plenty of good duck and goose hunting still here."
Spectacular waterfowling videos shot by Keller and in particular his brother, Andy, prove the point. Ostensibly, the stars of each -- video sales help fund the youth trips -- are the mallards and ringnecks and blue-winged teal that cup their wings and pitch into decoys. Keller knows differently: It's the kids who are along on the hunts, who wade in the dark through deep sloughs and across farm fields to position their decoys just so.
They're the real stars.
When the sun rises Saturday morning over a northwest Minnesota marsh and another Minnesota waterfowl season begins, Keller will ready himself in a blind with his 7-year-old son Trace and 9-year-old son Indiana.
Chances are even before the first duck appears over his string of blocks, he'll consider what a long strange trip it's been, from son of a lost father to father himself -- to whatever lies ahead.
Which might not include another Minnesota duck opener anytime soon.
"I know we have problems in Bemidji and in Minnesota," Keller said. "But in some cities of the world, there are 50,000 kids living on the streets. I think about that and about all the possessions we have, the stuff we own, and it's all so meaningless.
"We can't help everyone, my wife and I know that. But we've been thinking the last few years about trying to help. I'm really going to miss waterfowling. But if we can change things for the better for a few kids, then good."
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org