The snow-white arctic wolf suddenly appeared on a nearby sand ridge, dismissively eyeing the human intruders before raising its head and letting out a howl.
Then it disappeared, leaving the hair on the back of my neck still standing.
It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. And perhaps just as remarkable, I was being paid by the Star Tribune to be there, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, to witness and write about white wolves, musk ox, grizzlies and big trout during a 14-day wilderness river adventure.
“You have the greatest job in the world,” people have told me over the years. And they were right.
But now it’s time to move on and let someone else have this job of a lifetime — reporting on hunting, fishing and other outdoor news for the Star Tribune. After 20 years on the beat, I’m retiring, and soon another reporter will join outdoors columnist Dennis Anderson to continue this newspaper’s coverage of topics that help define the lives and lifestyles of so many Minnesotans.
My replacement will soon learn, as I did, that even a bad day on the water, or in the field, or on the trail, beats a good day in the office every time.
After all, I was paid to fish walleyes on Lake of the Woods, hunt ducks in North Dakota, roust pheasants in South Dakota, pitch a tent in the Boundary Waters and hike countless state parks. I also was paid to chase governors and Department of Natural Resource commissioners. I followed researchers to hibernating bears, bounced in floatplanes doing aerial duck surveys, watched biologists net prehistoric paddlefish and photographed hunters feeding starving deer.
They paid me to attend deer camps. To command a sled dog team across a wilderness lake. To cross-country ski atop frozen North Shore rivers.
Now I hope to spend more time outdoors and less time in front of a computer writing about the outdoors. Because, truthfully, it wasn’t all fun and games. There were plenty of long days at hearings and meetings — way too many meetings. And breaking news stories, which got adrenaline pumping but took a toll, too.
So after nearly 40 years in newspapers, it’s time to escape the deadline pressure-cooker.
Because, at age 63, after writing some 3,000 stories, I want to fish and hunt and paddle and ski and hike and camp more, while I still can. If there’s one thing a newspaper journalist knows after years of facing deadlines, it’s that time is short.
I want to enjoy a sunset without having to rush back to file a story. Or sit around a campfire without having to jot down notes. Or hike into a field of chest-high prairie grass in search of ringnecks without having a camera draped around my neck.
But leaving isn’t easy. It has been a great job.
One reason it has been so fun and rewarding is that the people I’ve written about are so passionate about the outdoors and conservation. It was a great fit, because the outdoors is my passion, too.
Over the years I interviewed scores of Minnesotans, some famous, most little known, but all passionate about the outdoors. Many have tried to make the state a better place for wildlife — and for us. People like Harvey Nelson, Roger Holmes, Steve Kufrin and Don Sauter — all no longer with us but who left indelible impressions on me. And left Minnesota a little bit better.
From the head of the little sportsmen’s club to the chapter president of the conservation group to employees at numerous local, state and federal agencies, an impressive number of people are working hard — usually with little thanks or attention — to help Minnesota’s natural resources.
That’s why, though the state and its outdoor enthusiasts face many challenges — including loss of habitat, environmental threats and an aging nucleus of outdoor participants, I feel confident in the future. But we need more young people to step forward and fight for conservation, clean water, habitat and for our hunting and fishing traditions.
They need to get plugged in politically with the goings on at the State Capitol so they can have a voice in what happens on the landscape. Because what happens in St. Paul affects pheasants in Ortonville, ducks in Worthington and deer in Bemidji. One or two people can make a difference.
Apathy is one of our biggest threats.
For me, the Star Tribune outdoor job has been a life-changing experience. Thanks to you readers who have followed my journeys and offered critiques, compliments and story ideas over the years. To the people I’ve written about, and my dozens of sources, thanks for your time and patience.
I won’t say goodbye. You might occasionally see my name on future Star Tribune outdoors pages. You definitely will see me on portages, trails, lakes and fields around the state.
And I plan to stay plugged in to the many outdoor issues I’ve covered over two decades.
Because, in case you couldn’t tell by now, I care, too.
Doug Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.