Gackle, N.D. – Before dawn on an October morning, Harry Krause and I threw some duck decoys into a slough outside of this North Dakota town. The previous morning, we had hunted nearby and shot a couple of mallards each, but we noticed that the slough was full of ducks — maybe 400. Krause and I decided it would be our Sunday honey spot.
Of course, things change. We didn’t shoot a single duck. “That’s hunting,” Krause said, a common refrain. Before long, we had to pack up the “dekes” and hustle back to town. I’d come to Gackle to do two of my favorite things: hunt and preach, and I was the guest speaker at First United Church of Christ the same morning.
We drove back to Krause’s house to wash up before the service and came to an agreement: The Lord must prefer us in church and not in a duck blind.
The journey that brought me to east-central North Dakota began on a whim. I posted on my blog a somewhat tongue-in-cheek offer that I assumed was in vain: I would preach at any church in exchange for hunting. I received an e-mail a couple of days later from the Rev. Jean Mornard, the priest at Grace Episcopal Church in Huron, S.D. I didn’t know much about Huron, but I knew they had a statue of a giant pheasant. A good sign.
That November, I was knocking on the door of Mother Jean’s parishioners, Jorge and Connie Vicuna. And a couple of hours after that, my yellow Labrador retriever, Albert, and I were stomping through fields with Vicuna and his dogs, in search of pheasants. Sunday arrived, and I preached at Grace Church.
This year, I’ll make my fourth trip to Huron, preach on Advent Sunday, and hunt pheasants with Vicuna along the James River and on Conservation Reserve Program land that he manages. I’ve since added the trip to Gackle and another to a Lutheran church in Davenport, Iowa.
I didn’t grow up hunting. I came to it as a young pastor in my 20s. A church member took me to his cabin on Lake of the Woods and taught me to duck hunt, then he took me to South Dakota for pheasants. I was hooked. But I also had a growing sense that my own spirituality — my sense of connection with God — intensified when I was hunting.
That has only increased as my career has evolved from pastoral ministry to teaching and writing. What moves me are the outdoors and the silences, and watching my dog work and making new friends. I teach at a couple of seminaries, and I have yet to cross paths with another seminary professor in a duck blind — a Ph.D. in theology and a shotgun don’t often go together. That I get to combine an activity that gives me great joy with my vocation is almost too good to be true. Maybe it’s providence.
Quintessential North Dakota
Albert and I drove the five-plus hours to Gackle on Oct. 7 and settled into the home of Krause and his wife, Brenda. Longtime farmers, they moved into town a dozen years ago and now lease out their 2,200 acres for corn and soybeans. It’s simple living like that of the Krauses that plays out in Gackle. Harry and Brenda are two of about 300 residents, and everything but Dani’s Bar, the Co-op gas station and the Tastee-Freez have closed. The closest grocery store is 40 miles away in Jamestown.
Harry Krause, 76, is a quintessential North Dakotan. He drives a 1977 Ford F-150, even though he has a 2016 model in the garage. He and Brenda come from Russian-German stock, and they fill my belly with delicacies named küchen (custard cake), knoephla (dumpling stew, often with beef and sauerkraut), and küchle (fry bread). Another bonus is that Krause knows every farmer in the area, opening myriad hunting possibilities to us.
Rolling hills of corn, soybeans, oats and wheat fill the senses in these parts. So do potholes — bodies of water that range in size from little swamps to large lakes. It’s this abundance of water and field crops that have pulled the duck migration west, out of Minnesota and over the Dakotas.
Shortly after we arrived Friday afternoon, Albert and I got into Krause’s pickup and went out to jump-shoot, meaning we drove around looking for ducks in potholes before attempting a sneak attack. Mallard drakes are the main prize, but they were particularly skittish, having been already shot at for three weeks.
Every pothole was chock-full of ducks, but the birds usually spooked well before I could get close enough to shoot. I did bag three gadwalls and a teal, each happily retrieved by Albert.
We also set up next to sloughs over a couple of days, hidden among cattails and reeds. On Saturday afternoon, for a change of pace, we hunted for Canada geese in a cornfield. We set up decoys in a strip that had been harvested, and we sat a row deep in the corn that was still standing. Over the course of three hours, two large groups came in. I dropped two into the corn, and Krause dropped one into some high grass. Albert found one of mine, but he and I searched in vain for my second. Krause’s goose, too, also appeared to be lost.
Later, as Krause walked to get the truck so we could pack up and head in for supper, I took the dog for one more search. A very-much-alive goose popped its head out of the grass and hissed. Unfazed, Albert tussled with the bird, got a good grip on it with his mouth, and delivered it, leaving me the unsavory job of dispatching the goose.
Time for church
The Rev. Rick Steele pastors both the Congregational and Lutheran churches in Gackle because neither is large enough for a full-time clergyperson. On my Sunday, the congregations combined for about 50 in the pews, filling about half of the sanctuary. Still, everyone sat in the back half. “C’mon back here,” Krause beckoned at one point, so I abandoned the pulpit and spoke from the center aisle.
I preached about the challenges to the church in the 21st century, and we sang hymns and prayed. We all proceeded afterward to the church basement for a potluck of which dreams are made. There must have been a dozen crockpots, each filled with rib-sticking food, including tater tot hot dish, meatballs, homemade sausage and something called cheese buttons (which, I learned later, is another version of knöpfla.)
After that, Steele and I met with the youth group, a couple of whom had missed the church service because they were hunting. Then we walked around the corner to the Gackle Care Center, where they were having an open house with a a bake sale and a man playing polka tunes on an accordion.
“How’s the hunting?” everyone asked me.
“Not bad. Not bad at all.”
I think I spoke for many modern hunters who live in the suburbs and work in the city but spend weekends in the field. Having a full bag of game isn’t the point. Getting away is. Finding some quiet. And maybe even connecting with the Creator.
Albert and I drove the long, open miles home Monday morning with some meat in our cooler, a homemade apple pie from the bake sale and dreams that we will get asked back to Gackle to hunt and preach next fall.
Tony Jones of Edina teaches at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton. His latest book is “Did God Kill Jesus?” Reach him at tonyj.net.