Prairie landscape leaves lessons to last a lifetime

  • Article by: TORI J. MCCORMICK SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: September 26, 2013 - 5:39 PM

An outdoorsman pens an appreciation for the landscape he learned to love.

hide

Our correspondent’s pick of prairie destinations, South Dakota’s Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge is often blanketed with migratory birds.

Photo: Photo provided by Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

 

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.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Milwaukee 25 1st Qtr 2:55
Orlando 13
New York 24 1st Qtr 3:11
Indiana 14
Denver 7:00 PM
Memphis
Chicago 9:30 PM
LA Lakers
Montreal 0 1st Prd 7:20
NY Rangers 0
Winnipeg 1 1st Prd 9:39
Philadelphia 1
Boston 0 1st Prd 7:56
NY Islanders 0
Arizona 6:30 PM
Toronto
Dallas 6:30 PM
Ottawa
Detroit 6:30 PM
Tampa Bay
Columbus 6:30 PM
Florida
Nashville 7:00 PM
St. Louis
Minnesota 8:00 PM
Calgary
Buffalo 8:30 PM
Edmonton
Anaheim 9:00 PM
San Jose
DePaul 72 FINAL
Providence 83
Michigan State 54 2nd Half 13:06
Rutgers 36
Boston Univ 18 1st Half 9:01
Army 16
Fla Atlantic 19 1st Half 10:21
Charlotte 18
Youngstown St 4 1st Half 11:30
Detroit 16
East Tenn St 12 1st Half 8:08
Furman 13
Saint Louis 15 1st Half 7:55
George Mason 10
USC Upstate 9 1st Half 14:01
Jacksonville 4
High Point 20 1st Half 7:00
Liberty 15
Central Conn St 18 1st Half 4:45
Long Island 24
Western Ky 14 1st Half 11:00
Louisiana Tech 13
Dayton 24 1st Half 7:33
Massachusetts 28
Chattanooga 20 1st Half 7:45
Mercer 29
Wofford 10 1st Half 9:38
UNC Greensboro 12
Maryland 12 1st Half 7:37
Ohio State 16
FIU 11 1st Half 9:46
Old Dominion 12
Fair-Dickinson 14 1st Half 9:50
Robert Morris 21
Mount St Marys 18 1st Half 9:40
St Francis-NY 12
Bryant 24 1st Half 6:42
St Francis-PA 28
Northern Ky 13 1st Half 7:54
Stetson 25
Coll of Charleston 9 1st Half 9:45
Towson 15
Western Carolina 26 1st Half 8:40
Va Military 14
Sacred Heart 18 1st Half 8:46
Wagner 11
Lipscomb 17 1st Half 7:40
Fla Gulf Coast 27
Kennesaw St 11 1st Half 8:20
North Florida 30
Appalachian St 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
Holy Cross 6:30 PM
Loyola-Maryland
Eastern Ill 6:30 PM
UT Martin
Jacksonville St 7:00 PM
Belmont
Connecticut 7:00 PM
Cincinnati
Rider 7:00 PM
Saint Peters
SIU Edwardsville 7:00 PM
SE Missouri St
Marshall 7:00 PM
Southern Miss
Tenn Tech 7:00 PM
Tennessee St
Middle Tennessee 7:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Ill-Chicago 7:00 PM
Milwaukee
Weber State 7:00 PM
North Dakota
Denver 7:00 PM
North Dakota St
IUPU-Ft Wayne 7:00 PM
South Dakota
Louisiana 7:05 PM
South Alabama
Georgia State 7:15 PM
Texas-Arlington
Ark-Little Rock 7:30 PM
Arkansas State
ULM 7:30 PM
Troy
Portland 8:00 PM
Gonzaga
Kentucky 8:00 PM
Missouri
Eastern Ky 8:00 PM
Murray State
UAB 8:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Idaho State 8:00 PM
Northern Colorado
UMKC 8:00 PM
Grand Canyon
Chicago State 8:05 PM
Utah Valley U
Colorado 8:30 PM
USC
Cal Poly 9:00 PM
UC Irvine
Hawaii 9:00 PM
CS-Northridge
Pepperdine 9:00 PM
Pacific
Santa Clara 9:00 PM
San Diego
Utah 9:00 PM
UCLA
UC Santa Barbara 9:00 PM
UC Davis
Montana 9:05 PM
Portland State
Montana State 9:05 PM
Sacramento St
Long Beach State 9:30 PM
Cal State Fullerton
Loyola Marymount 9:30 PM
St Marys-CA
San Francisco 10:00 PM
BYU
California 10:00 PM
Washington St
Louisiana 47 FINAL
South Alabama 57
Saint Josephs 51 FINAL
Saint Louis 52
Appalachian St 77 FINAL
Georgia Southern 74
Niagara 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 65
Old Dominion 58 2nd Half 6:18
FIU 52
Southern Miss 59 2nd Half 6:22
Marshall 50
Georgia State 21 2nd Half 10:29
TX-Arlington 44
Ark-Little Rock 50 2nd Half 8:07
Arkansas State 59
ULM 14 2nd Half 20:00
Troy 47
Pittsburgh 20 2nd Half 20:00
(17) Duke 36
(6) Tennessee 18 1st Half 7:17
(10) Kentucky 15
(24) Oklahoma 22 1st Half 7:58
(14) Texas 18
Nebraska Omaha 5 1st Half 13:03
IUPU-Ft Wayne 14
UC-Riverside 18 1st Half 8:52
CS-Northridge 20
Army 21 1st Half 7:34
Boston U 10
New Orleans 9 1st Half 6:14
Nicholls 18
Charlotte 23 1st Half 8:00
Florida Atlantic 25
Towson 18 1st Half 3:48
Delaware 21
Hofstra 20 1st Half 9:03
Northeastern 13
New Hampshire 16 1st Half 8:46
Maine 25
Albany 23 1st Half 7:19
Vermont 15
Hartford 21 1st Half 6:52
Stony Brook 19
UNC-Wilmington 26 1st Half 7:47
William & Mary 15
Clemson 9 1st Half 10:13
Wake Forest 15
Alabama 13 1st Half 7:54
(1) South Carolina 27
(23) Syracuse 17 1st Half 7:51
(8) Louisville 11
Missouri 23 1st Half 8:41
Florida 19
Iona 23 1st Half 5:42
Fairfield 25
Manhattan 13 1st Half 6:44
Marist 25
NC State 25 1st Half 5:39
Virginia 25
(4) Notre Dame 13 1st Half 11:32
Virginia Tech 6
(22) Rutgers 15 1st Half 7:54
Purdue 13
(5) Maryland 23 1st Half 9:15
Michigan 20
Milwaukee 14 1st Half 6:57
Cleveland State 23
Wright State 35 1st Half 8:03
Oakland 24
Jacksonville 9 1st Half 9:11
USC Upstate 14
North Florida 8 1st Half 6:59
Kennesaw St 9
Stetson 13 1st Half 10:54
Northern Ky 18
Loyola-Maryland 11 1st Half 4:53
Holy Cross 14
Lamar 6:30 PM
Sam Houston St
Fla Gulf Coast 6:30 PM
Lipscomb
Vanderbilt 7:00 PM
(18) Miss State
IUPUI 7:00 PM
Western Ill
Abilene Christian 7:00 PM
Houston Baptist
Incarnate Word 7:00 PM
TX A&M-CC
McNeese State 7:00 PM
SE Louisiana
Oral Roberts 7:00 PM
South Dakota St
Louisiana Tech 7:00 PM
Western Ky
TX-San Antonio 7:00 PM
Middle Tennessee
Texas-El Paso 7:00 PM
UAB
Auburn 7:00 PM
Arkansas
Grand Canyon 7:00 PM
UMKC
Illinois 7:00 PM
(15) Nebraska
(20) Iowa 7:00 PM
Northwestern
Utah Valley U 7:05 PM
Chicago State
Green Bay 7:05 PM
Valparaiso
Ole Miss 8:00 PM
LSU
Portland State 8:00 PM
Montana
Sacramento St 8:00 PM
Montana State
North Dakota 8:00 PM
Weber State
Ohio State 8:00 PM
Wisconsin
Northern Colorado 8:00 PM
Idaho State
BYU 9:00 PM
San Francisco
St Marys-CA 9:00 PM
Loyola Marymount
Pacific 9:00 PM
Pepperdine
Cal-Irvine 9:00 PM
UC Santa Barbara
San Diego 9:00 PM
Santa Clara
UC Davis 9:00 PM
Cal Poly
Long Beach St 10:59 PM
Hawaii
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close