The brooding, leaden sky that cool autumn morning in the late 1990s was raining not buckets of rain but bounties of blue-winged teal, gadwalls and the occasional spoonbill, the trinity of early-season dabbling ducks.
My young black Lab Buddy — a waterfowling virgin — was 60-plus pounds of undisciplined kinetic energy, and, short of sedation, I did everything humanely possible to keep him steady in the blind. Truth is, my heart was pounding like a jackhammer, too. It was duck hunting as sensory shock and awe. In more than two decades of waterfowling, I had never experienced anything like it.
A month earlier, and in hasty fashion, I pulled up stakes from my native Minnesota to take my first newspaper job as outdoors editor of the Aberdeen American News, a medium-size daily in northeast South Dakota. The things I knew about prairie country and its culture couldn’t fill a shot glass. Like many Minnesotans, my entire existence — or nearly so — revolved around the hardwood- and pine-studded beauty of north-central Minnesota — lake country. In fall, hunting opportunities there with close friends — from ducks to ruffed grouse to deer — abounded. It’s what I knew well and what I loved even more.
But now I was off on a new journey six hours due west, my internal compass spinning wildly out of control. I was alone in unfamiliar territory and harboring (I’d come to learn later) a woefully inaccurate misconception: that prairie country was a barren, unforgiving and soulless moonscape devoid of life and as boring as reading the want ads.
“You have to love the prairie a little before it loves you back.”
Those words were spoken by my late friend Rudy, during an interview on one of my first assignments. They didn’t resonate much, if at all, at the time. Rudy, I was told, was an outlier, a grain farmer with a generous green streak. Indeed, his homestead was stunning, a matrix of wetlands, grasslands, shelterbelts and food plots, all of which had a singular objective: producing (or attracting) wildlife. Rudy had long buried what he was taught by his farming forebears: that industrial, plant-or-bust agriculture was the only way to make a living. Instead, he opted to heal his land and strike a balance with it.
“Farm the best, leave the rest,” he’d say. In doing so, he created a sort of Serengeti on the prairie. Pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse. Turkeys and deer. Ducks and geese. Shorebirds and other migratory birds. His farmstead was amazing.
Despite our vast age difference, Rudy and I became good friends. More than a friend, he was also my prairie mentor. I think he sensed that I knew less than nothing about his home turf. I became his pupil, his “project.” My first class: Prairie Appreciation 101.
Rudy wasn’t a biologist (you never hear him speak code words like “biodiversity” or “sustainability”) but he had a practical, encyclopedic understanding of the eastern Dakotas and their ecology — the aptly named Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).
Rudy’s knowledge and guidance stoked my curiosity. The PPR, I’d come to learn, was the epicenter of what was once the largest expanse of grasslands in the world, the Great Plains of North America. When the glaciers from the last ice age receded, they left in their wake thousands upon thousands of tiny depressions, known as potholes. These plant- and aquatic-rich wetlands support continentally and even globally significant populations of breeding waterfowl and other migratory birds.
“You’re standing in the ‘duck factory,’ ” Rudy told me during our first meeting as we overlooked the cattail-rimed wetland he so generously let me and my dog — a noble savage if there ever was one — hunt two days later, my first for waterfowl in South Dakota.
Rudy was mule-stubborn, and he died with his land-use philosophy firmly intact. He had zero tolerance for his peers who broke native prairie and drained wetlands, the sins (and stories) of the Dust Bowl era still firmly etched in his psyche.
He saw the prairie landscape he so dearly loved as the sum of its parts. Take away one part, he’d often say, and the affects can be dramatic, and lasting. Lesson taught, lesson learned.
Rudy, I dare say, is churning in his grave today. The prairie on which he made a modest living and which brought him endless joy is being dramatically altered. I can hear him: “History is repeating itself. Haven’t we learned anything?”
High commodity prices (corn and soybeans), among several other factors, have ushered in a new era of intensive agriculture. Wildlife officials say grasslands and wetlands are being lost at alarming rate, and the future of prairie-nesting birds is uncertain, at best. Rudy would have lamented the trend and demanded I write about it. He could be relentless. “Do your job,” he’d say.
Not long before Rudy died, he called me at the paper. The fall waterfowl migration, which Rudy coveted beyond comprehension and whose love of which he bequeathed to me, was in full swing. “You need to get out here ASAP. I’m covered up in mallards. That wetland you like to hunt is wing to wing.”
I didn’t hesitate. That night, when those mallards were out feeding, we set up. I made Buddy sit atop a beaver hut, while I stood nearby in thigh-high slough water. We waited. And waited. As shooting time elapsed, I unloaded my shotgun and climbed atop the hut. The sunset was magnificent, like someone had lit a match and set the horizon on fire.